After Wilma's punch, the pinch
PLANTATION, FLA. — Now comes the hard part.
After enduring several harrowing hours hunkered down in their homes in the midst of 100-plus-mile-per-hour winds, Floridians are finding that the aftermath of hurricane Wilma may be more difficult than the storm itself.
The frustration resonates all the way from the governor to residents who have entered their fourth day without power.
"Going through the storm was a little scary, but it is a bigger challenge to figure out how you are going to survive day to day without all the creature comforts we've come to expect," sums up Jason Swann, as he cradles his 2-week-old daughter, Lily, in his arms. "The notion of standing in line for an hour for a bag of ice is absurd. But when it comes down to 'What do I need to help my family survive,' I will do it."
Mr. Swann is among more than 2 million Floridians who remained without power in the wake of hurricane Wilma. Cool temperatures and pleasant, clear weather have softened the impact of the loss of electricity and those all-important air-conditioning systems in balmy south Florida.
But the blackout is taking a toll in other ways as frustration over the relief effort has mounted.
"We did not perform to where we want to be," Gov. Jeb Bush said at a news conference Wednesday, adding that criticism of the federal response was misdirected. "This is our responsibility."
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez called the relief distribution system "flawed." Nine of the 11 sites in his county ran out of supplies, according to its website.
Although adequate supplies of gasoline were pre-positioned in Florida ports, without electric power wholesalers had been unable to load tanker trucks at the ports. By Thursday, Port Everglades had power back for most of its fuel depot, which supplies stations across South Florida.
Even with fuel, however, most retailers are unable to pump it from their underground storage tanks.
State and federal officials are scrambling to locate portable generators to solve the problem. The few gas stations that have opened have triggered instant mile-long lines of cars, all presumably with their gas gauges near "E."
At one Fort Lauderdale station, two women were forced to push their car forward as the line inched toward the gas station three blocks away.
Just getting to a gas station can be a challenge. Only six of Broward County's 1,350 traffic lights are working, county officials say. Many were blown from their supports and those that are still in place have no power.
A lack of generators has also set the stage for a potential health emergency. Sewers are beginning to back up and overflow into the streets. Backups are caused when sewer lift stations are shut down from lack of power for too long. Without a generator or some other power source, the sewer pipes fill up and eventually overflow through manhole covers.
Such problems are usually averted by the swift restoration of power. As of Thursday morning, local utility FPL had restored electricity to slightly more than 1 million of the 3.2 million of its customers whose power was knocked out by the storm.
But the strength and magnitude of Wilma's winds have overloaded the power companies' ability to quickly respond. Significant damage to transmission lines and power substations stretches from St. Lucie County in the north to Miami-Dade County in the south. But nowhere is the damage more extensive than here in Broward County, officials say. Estimates are that many residents are facing two to three weeks before their power will be restored.
What that means for homeowners with freezers full of thawing food is that they can feast. As their frozen food turns to slush, propane grills are being wheeled out into driveways and fired up to sear all manner of steaks, chops, chicken, and even lobster. On any evening, in any neighborhood, simply follow your nose (except in those neighborhoods with sewer backups).
The manager of an Outback Steakhouse in Sunrise, Fla., invited much of his neighborhood - 14 in all - to his home for a poststorm steak-a-thon.
So did Bob Sausner. He offered steak and soup. "We had to start cooking it because it was starting to thaw out," he says. "Instead of letting it go to waste, we shared it with the neighbors."
Many longtime Floridians say that big storms seem to bring out the best in people. Chappy Coldwell is captain of the 105-foot motor yacht "William I." After riding out the hurricane at his home in Plantation, he needed to check on the yacht and his crew. But fallen trees blocked every road out of his neighborhood.
"I had to chain saw my way out," he says. When his neighbors heard the saw, they came out and helped. "This is a big deal," Captain Coldwell says, holding up his chain saw. "Right now I'm real popular."
Coldwell has another advantage. If conditions at home get too grim from lack of power, he can move the family onto the "William I," which is outfitted with a generator and a well-stocked galley.
Swann says he has enough food and water to last two weeks, but he needs a bag of ice every two days to help keep baby formula fresh. He uses his propane grill to heat water to sterilize baby bottles and prepare formula. But if power isn't restored by this weekend, he says he'll take the family to Atlanta to stay with friends - or buy a generator.
As for Lily, she sleeps through pretty much everything, including her dad being interviewed. Swann's neighbors suggested that they should consider renaming their daughter Wilma.
That won't happen, Swann says. "My wife's pretty content with Lily Rose."
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.