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Florida takes stock of widespread damage, begins recovery

MIAMI—The day after Hurricane Wilma whipped South Florida, millions of residents began an all-too-familiar ritual of recovery on a scale not seen during the past two brutal storm seasons.

From Key West to North Palm Beach, thousands of people waited in lines for hours Tuesday to collect jugs of water and ice and fill up on gas. Some home-supply stores sold out of generators, chain saws, water and propane fuel.

Millions had no electricity, and the wait for it to be restored could stretch to four weeks, officials warned. Mile after mile of the region's precious tree canopy was frayed or destroyed.

Wilma also caused at least seven deaths, including that of a 1-year-old Miami-Dade boy fatally injured Monday when a utility pole fell on the car he was riding in.

The storm caused billions of dollars in damage after coming ashore south of Naples on Monday morning as a Category 3 hurricane. Wilma lost little intensity as it cut a wide, destructive swath through South Florida.

The scope of damage was stunning.

Preliminary estimates, based on a series of computer models, put it at $6 billion to $10 billion, said Sam Miller of the Florida Insurance Council.

That makes Wilma the most damaging storm of the four that hit Florida this year.

It knocked out power to about 6 million people in 18 Florida counties, according to Florida Power & Light. On the East Coast, the blackout extended from Key West to parts of Brevard County, east of Orlando—a distance of roughly 400 miles.

In Miami-Dade, just 18 of the county's 2,600 traffic lights were working Tuesday morning, county Mayor Carlos Alvarez said. In Broward, all 1,500 traffic lights were out.

Emergency officials in both counties warned residents to stay off the roads.

The power loss provoked water-service problems in Broward and Palm Beach counties, and boil-water notices were posted in many municipalities. Water began flowing again to homes in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday afternoon.

West of Delray Beach, water pressure was so low that fire-rescue officials had trouble containing a massive blaze that torched a 9,000-square-foot mansion.

Schools are expected to remain closed the rest of the week in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties, said State Education Commissioner John Winn. He said hundreds of portable classrooms were rendered unusable. Many schools had roof sections blown off and standing water in classrooms and hallways.

In neighborhood after neighborhood, there was plenty of mundane damage—tiles torn off roofs, crumpled patio screens, downed street signs and streetlights, fallen trees blocking roads and driveways—but so much that it seemed unreal.

In Plantation, Paulo Llanus said the landscape was so changed that he didn't recognize his mobile home when he and his mother, Lucera, returned from a shelter.

"The screened patio is down, the aluminum holding the roof is gone and the garage is gone," said Lucera Lora.

Additional help is on the way: The Salvation Army and American Red Cross will be setting up food kitchens in coming days, Gov. Jeb Bush said.

Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne has asked for the National Guard to relieve his deputies.

Police reported few problems overnight. By mid-morning, Miami-Dade County police had arrested 14 people for curfew violations. Ten people were arrested for looting.

In Palm Beach County, police arrested 14 curfew violators, described by Sheriff Ric Bradshaw as the "worst of the worst."

State officials were pushing hard to have federal funds flow to individual homeowners in South Florida hit by Wilma. "It's going to come," Bush said.

But for South Florida, normal is a long way away, Bush warned.

"People are frustrated," Bush said during a visit to Miami-Dade's Emergency Operations Center. "Tomorrow will be better than today. There will be a full-blown recovery effort and people will start getting their lives back together."

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(Negrete, DeMarzo and Viglucci report for The Miami Herald.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-WILMA

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