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More gasoline and electricity flow, but frail and elderly suffer

MIAMI—Still largely power-less and somewhat fuel-challenged, South Florida confronted a new issue Saturday in the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma: storm-related injuries, jammed emergency rooms and deteriorating conditions for the ill, the frail and the elderly.

"If the power isn't restored to the high-rises soon, we're going to be seeing some real medical problems in the elderly, and quite possibly some dead," said Michael Weston, fire rescue medical director for Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale.

Residents said the situation was particularly grim in portions of Century Village, a sprawling condominium community east of Fort Lauderdale with 15,000 predominantly elderly residents. Power had been restored to only about half of the development.

Scores of frail people there and elsewhere have been unable to leave their upper-level apartments since the storm struck Monday because elevators are out of service. Others were beginning to feel the effects of rising temperatures without the comfort of air conditioning.

Around the region, particularly in Broward County, north of Miami, some people dependent on oxygen flocked to emergency rooms after depleting supplies at home. Hospitals reported injuries from car crashes at unregulated intersections, falls from ladders, and burns from barbecues and generators. After nearly a week without power and refrigeration, food poisoning emerged as an issue.

The scenes contrasted sharply with the situation in Miami Beach, Weston and other areas, where some shopped, dined and generally enjoyed a pleasant autumn day.

The primary difference: electricity.

Hurricane Wilma knocked out electricity service to more than 3.2 million customers when it swept through South Florida. Florida Power & Light reported Saturday that it had restored service to 60 percent of those, but 1.29 million customers were still waiting for electricity, 473,800 of those in Broward, 358,900 in Miami-Dade County.

Though the vast majority of customers will have power in the coming days, FPL said, full service might not be restored until Nov. 22.

Lack of power will keep public schools closed Monday throughout the region, and possibly for all of next week. But the restoration of power at many gasoline stations produced notably shorter lines for motorists needing to refuel, though some people still found themselves waiting more than an hour to fill up.

Several cities in Broward County—Fort Lauderdale, Coconut Creek, Hillsboro Beach, North Lauderdale, Oakland Park, Tamarac and Wilton Manors—still did not have potable tap water, and only 6 percent of the county's traffic lights—80 out of 1,350—were back in operation. About half of Miami-Dade's 2,600 traffic lights were working.

Meanwhile, public health officials and hurricane experts issued urgent alerts to South Floridians: Be careful. The post-Wilma cleanup can be as lethal as the storm itself.

Wilma already was responsible for 14 deaths in Florida, including five from carbon monoxide poisoning, apparently related to improper use of portable generators, and police urged people to keep generators outside.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue handled about 120 serious injury calls on Monday, when Wilma struck. It handled nearly 150 on Friday, four days later.

In Broward, the number of calls for help increased substantially as the week ended, often coming from people who had run out of medicine or oxygen.

In response to the injury rate, the Federal Emergency Management Agency established makeshift emergency rooms in the parking lots of some South Florida hospitals.

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(Benn, Grotto and Merzer report for The Miami Herald.)

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

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