Homeland Security chief Chertoff urges residents to be patient and says relief is on its way.
MIAMI – They were running on fumes, and they were fuming.
Drivers waited for hours, some overnight, for a chance to fill up at a Sam’s Club gas station, in a line that by Wednesday had wrapped around the warehouse store’s parking lot and spilled over onto an expressway exit.
Somehow the line got snarled, and anxious motorists screamed at each other in the uproar. As several police officers tried to restore order, Claudia Shaw sat and wondered how a hurricane could bring such chaos to a state that is practically synonymous with them.
“This is like the Third World,” said Shaw, a native of Colombia who said she never saw such conditions in her home country — not even when the power went out.
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“We live in a state where we suffer from these storms every year. Where is the planning?”
Shaw was among untold thousands of Floridians who have spent hours waiting — for gas, for food, for water, for building supplies. Sometimes they waited in vain, at gas stations with no fuel or electricity, or at some aid distribution centers where, on Tuesday, promised trucks filled with necessities never materialized.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff asked victims of Hurricane Wilma to have patience for relief efforts as he surveyed crumpled boats, shattered mobile homes and snaking lines of cars at fuel stations along the storm’s path.
Stepping up aid in Wilma’s wake, Chertoff promised to deploy cargo planes overnight to gather water and ice from across the country for delivery by today. He also said the government was working to find more power generators to send to south Florida, and called on oil companies to help distributors get fuel out of the ground and into gas tanks.
“I have to say, in honesty, patience will be required for everybody,” Chertoff told The Associated Press during his flight to Florida. “Under the best circumstances, even in the best planning, you still confront the physical reality of a destructive storm.”At least one relief site of 11 in Miami-Dade County ran out of supplies Wednesday, and others were running low, Mayor Carlos Alvarez said.
“When this inventory runs out at these different distribution centers, we do not know and FEMA cannot tell us when they will be resupplied,” Alvarez said. “It’s the process and how it’s structured, and it’s flawed.”
Gov. Jeb Bush said any criticism of the Federal Emergency Management Agency was misdirected.
“Don’t blame FEMA. This is our responsibility,” Bush said at a news conference in Tallahassee with federal Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who oversees the agency.
Myriad problems affected supply deliveries, according to local and state officials. Cell phone service was down or spotty, and some drivers who got lost on their way to distribution points had to be brought there by police escort.
Local governments prematurely released distribution sites and times, causing crowds to gather hours before any supplies got there. In many cases, there simply was not enough ice, water and meals ready-to-eat to go around, or it took far too long to get the supplies to the proper places, officials said.
“We did not perform to where we want to be,” Bush said.
The governor added, however, that people seeking relief should have done more to prepare for the storm.
“People had ample time to prepare. It isn’t that hard to get 72 hours’ worth of food and water,” said Bush, repeating the advice that officials had given days before Wilma hit.
Ruth Granados, a single mother who is seven months’ pregnant, said her job and responsibilities as a mother gave her little time to shop before the storm. That left her waiting in line for more than nine hours Wednesday for free ice and water.
“I feel like I’m going to give birth right here in the parking lot,” she said.
The 21st storm in the busiest Atlantic hurricane season on record, Wilma killed at least 27 people. Florida’s official death toll doubled from five to 10 Wednesday, and the storm also killed at least 12 people in Haiti, four in Mexico and one in Jamaica.
In Mexico, thousands of haggard tourists battled for airline and bus seats out of the country’s hurricane-battered Caribbean resorts.
Officials said about 22,000 foreign tourists remained in the area Wednesday, down from a peak of almost 40,000. Officials set up makeshift airline counters at a high school where representatives worked to evacuate those left.
President Bush, the governor’s brother, planned a Thursday visit to South Florida, where pieces of roofs, trees, signs, awnings, fences, billboards and pool screens were scattered across several counties. The state’s most populous region of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach were caught in the storm, and damage estimates ranged up to $10 billion.
Florida Power & Light had restored power by Wednesday to about 20 percent of the 6 million people who had lost it. The state’s largest utility warned, however, that full restoration could take weeks.
Wilma flooded tomato and pepper fields, likely meaning higher prices in stores for those vegetables. In Cocoa, where the storm dumped up to 71/2 inches of rain, residents canoed to flooded houses and relied on deputies in airboats to bring water and supplies.
There were signs of progress: More streets were cleared of debris and domestic flights resumed at airports in Miami and Palm Beach. Even trash removal returned to some areas.
But there was also frustration. Police watched over the few gas stations that were open as a precaution in case motorists’ tempers flared while they waited several hours in many cases buy fuel.
Hundreds of people lined up outside one home-supply store, desperate for cleanup and other supplies. A few fast-food restaurants open in Miami had two-hour waits. There was even a shortage of cash: Many banks were not open and many ATMs were not working.
Storm-savvy Floridians resorted to their ingenuity. At one Wal-Mart, 30 people sat on the sidewalk while they used the store’s outside electrical outlets to recharge their cell phones.
At one gas station, a man went car-to-car selling fuel from a 10-gallon plastic tank. The price was $20 for about a gallon, and people happily paid.
Associated Press writers Travis Reed in Cocoa, David Royse in Key West, Mitch Stacy in Clewiston, Mike Schneider in Immokalee and Ron Word, Erik Schelzig, Melissa Trujillo and Adrian Sainz in Miami contributed to this report.