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Much of South Florida still lacks power, running water

MIAMI—Millions of South Floridians, pummeled by Hurricane Wilma, went a third day without electricity, and hundreds of thousands were without running water or phone service Wednesday as another crisis loomed—a shortage of functioning gasoline stations.

With President Bush due to visit the area Thursday, his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, urged angry residents to blame him, not federal officials, for a response that left many residents unable to find ice or water on Tuesday.

"If anybody wants to blame anybody, let them blame me," Bush said at the state's emergency operations center, with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and the Federal Emergency Management Agency's acting director, R. David Paulison, at his side. "Don't blame FEMA. This is our responsibility, and we are doing a good job."

State officials raised the number of dead attributed to Wilma to 10. Curfews remained in effect in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Storm victims waited in long lines at distribution centers Tuesday, many perplexed and angry that state, local and federal officials seemed to have misled them about when and whether supplies would arrive. The scenes were televised nationally, adding to FEMA's battered post-Hurricane Katrina reputation.

Wednesday's operation was smoother at most South Florida distribution sites, but supplies ran out at some places in Miami-Dade and Broward, and officials expressed anger.

"When they run out, that's it," said a frustrated Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez, a Republican. "FEMA cannot tell us when they will be resupplied."

In the city of Hollywood, ice trucks scheduled to arrive at 10 a.m. were delayed until 2:20 p.m. Mayor Mara Giulianti, a Democrat, pointed the finger at FEMA.

"Again, there's been a failure," she said. "If there's a failure of the government over something this simple, I'm frightened to see what would happen in an even worse crisis."

Chertoff pledged to send cargo planes and more trucks carrying ice, food and water to Homestead Air Reserve Base in southern Miami-Dade.

The complaints about FEMA were particularly ironic. Before Wilma's landfall, Bush had bragged that Florida's vast experience in storms made for a seamless process and what he called a "unified command"—a pointed reference to Louisiana, where Republican officials had blamed state officials for the slow response there.

On Friday, three days before Wilma arrived, FEMA officials said they had more than 300 truckloads of water, ice and meals stockpiled at Homestead and Jacksonville staging areas. By Wednesday afternoon, officials said the combined state-federal effort had delivered 1,046 truckloads of the essential items to local distribution sites.

But it wasn't enough for thousands of people who spent their day anxiously searching for ice, water and other supplies.

The effort was especially difficult in Broward County, north of Miami, where only 24,700 of 862,800 customers had electricity service. Florida Power & Light warned that power wouldn't be restored fully until Nov. 22.

Most Broward residents were ordered to boil their water, and many cities still had no water service, said Broward County Mayor Kristin Jacobs. Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport remained closed, as did Broward County government offices.

Jacobs said many roads in Broward remain obstructed by debris. One resident reported that he had no running water and that his neighbors were filling buckets from his swimming pool so that they could flush their toilets.

Gasoline was also a growing concern. Port Everglades, the region's main fuel depot, resumed operations Wednesday and began pumping out fuel as lines of tanker trucks idled for hours to pick up fuel for delivery to service stations.

But the lack of electricity throughout much of South Florida made it likely most of the stations would be unable to pump the fuel, and the hunt for working stations sent people driving scores of miles.

Jim Dion, a transport dispatcher for Dion Oil of Homestead, which supplies about two dozen stations from Miami to the Florida Keys, said he knew of one service station in southern Miami-Dade County that had been selling 2,000 gallons an hour, far beyond its normal sales of 5,000 gallons a week.

A honeymoon of polite etiquette at service stations Monday and Tuesday gave way to tense desperation Wednesday. With only a handful of gas stations open, lines were miles long and curses and punches flew.

Police were called to many gas stations to patrol angry lines and quell violence. Many people risked running out of gas just to fill up at the few open stations.

One woman who drove 20 miles from Broward County to Miami Beach was punched in the face by a motorist who tried to cut in line.

"I'm gonna need therapy," she said, fighting back tears moments after Miami Beach police arrested the man who attacked her. She declined to identify herself.

Some waited all day for gasoline they were never able to pump. Manuel Garay, 24, parked his pickup truck next to a pump in Miami at 6 a.m., hoping power would return soon. At 3:30 p.m., he was slumped over the bed of his pickup truck, still waiting.

"I need gas to go to work," he said. "If I don't get gas soon, I don't know if I will have a job when I go back."

Across the street, a Miami police officer sitting atop a horse overlooked a tense crowd hoping to fill cars and containers from the last 1,000 gallons left in that station's tanks.

Long lines at stations along Florida's turnpike forced state officials to impose a $20 limit per customer on fuel.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., called the gas and energy shortage "the biggest problem" and said lawmakers were pushing emergency officials in Tallahassee and Washington to find generators to pump gas out of the underground tanks at stations.

Florida Power & Light officials said they were puzzled by the pattern of damage to the electricity distribution system.

In Southwest Florida, where Wilma's eye came ashore, FPL suffered light damage, and the company has restored more than half the customers who lost power in Collier and Lee counties.

But once the storm hit Miami-Dade and Broward, it toppled power poles designed to stand up to 119-mph winds. Forty poles fell near the Miccosukee Indian reservation in west Miami-Dade. Forty more fell along Krome Avenue, a main thoroughfare in west Miami-Dade. Another 40 snapped in Miramar, and 20 fell in Davie, both in Broward County.

The complaints about the emergency response sparked debate about whether it was still too early to judge whether Wilma was further evidence of a dysfunctional disaster response system.

William Waugh, a disaster management expert and professor of public administration at Georgia State University, said the first 24 hours after a storm are always the hardest logistically, because trucks have trouble traversing roads strewn with debris.

Paulison, Bush and Chertoff pushed some of the blame back at residents Wednesday, saying they should have had supplies at home for three days after the storm.

But Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Democrat from Miami, said Bush was "insulting the victims of the hurricane in South Florida by telling them to be patient and that they should have had what they needed for 72 hours."

Rep. Clay Shaw, a Republican from Broward County, defended the response.

"Folks are going to criticize anything that's not perfect," he said. "FEMA is not perfect, but I think they're doing a great job."

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(DeMarzo, Klas and Hiaasen report for The Miami Herald.)

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

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

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