FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. AP -Repair crews across Florida struggled Tuesday to restore electricity to up to 6 million people, reopen the region”s airports and replace countless windows blown out of downtown high-rises during Hurricane Wilma”s ruinous dash across the state.
Officials said it could take weeks for Florida”s most heavily populated region — the Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach area — to return to normal.
Water and gas became precious commodities, and people waited for hours for free water, ice and food. Lines stretched for blocks at the few gas stations with the electricity needed to pump fuel, and arguments broke out when motorists tried to cut in line. More than 500 people waited outside one store for cleanup supplies.
But barely 24 hours after the Category 3 storm struck, there were signs of recovery.
"We have power! We have power!" several residents of Miami Lakes chanted as they ran out their back doors when the lights came on.
The quantity of debris was daunting: Pieces of roofs, trees, signs, awnings, fences, billboards and pool screens were scattered across several counties. Damage estimates ranged up to $10 billion.
"Tomorrow”s going to be better than today," Gov. Jeb Bush said.
Some of the worst damage was in downtown Fort Lauderdale, where Wilma was the strongest hurricane to strike since 1950. Winds of more than 100 mph blew out windows in high-rises, many built before Florida enacted tougher construction codes following Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
The school district”s 14-story headquarters — known as the "Crystal Palace" — was stripped of nearly its entire glass facade on one side.
"We”re going to have to fix it in a way that is stronger," schools superintendent Frank Till said.
Government officials and business executives scrambled to repair buildings and find other places to work. Broward County court officials were trying to determine whether sessions could be held at the damaged courthouse in coming days.
Some schools and courts closed for the week. Orders to boil water were issued in many locations. Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties imposed overnight curfews.
At Miami International, the busiest U.S. hub for Latin American travel, the first plane to land since the hurricane arrived Tuesday from Brazil, and domestic flights were to resume Wednesday morning. Airports at Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach remained closed to commercial traffic but emergency aircraft were coming into both facilities.
At least 2,000 domestic and international flights were disrupted by the storm, affecting hundreds of thousands of fliers, when Wilma knocked out electricity and damaged roofs, towers, fences and other equipment.
Agriculture officials said damage to their industry would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The greatest losses were believed to be to the winter vegetable crop, which provides more than half of the nation”s supply from November to February. Also hurt were sugar cane fields and ornamental-plant nurseries.
The 21st storm in the worst Atlantic hurricane season on record, Wilma was blamed for at least five deaths statewide. Before hitting the United States, it killed at least six people in Mexico, one in Jamaica and 12 in Haiti as it swirled across the Caribbean.
"It will be days or weeks before we are back to normal," Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez said.
In the wake of complaints over the way the government dealt with Hurricane Katrina, the governor praised the early response to Wilma.
But not everyone was so pleased. Thousands of people reportedly stood in line for up to 10 hours in North Miami, waiting for relief supplies that did not arrive until early evening.
"Pretty sad," said Douglas Riley, shaking his head after waiting 7 1/2 hours for two bags of ice. "It”s very disappointing for the amount of stuff we got. But I”m grateful."
Trucks carrying bags of ice and cases of water were late to a number of distribution areas.
"We know the assets are there. Now it”s just a matter of getting the product to the people," Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez said.
FEMA spokeswoman Frances Marine urged patience. "We can”t wave a magic wand and clear roads and fix damage that was done by nature in a day," she said.
Distribution went more smoothly elsewhere. At Key West High School, the food even included Key lime pie.
And many storm-savvy Floridians coped with good humor, their mood lifted in part by spectacular weather in the wake of Wilma: cloudless skies and unseasonably low temperatures that dropped into the 50s about dawn Tuesday and were in the mid-70s during the day.
"This weather is a blessing," said Agnes Howard, who found her home without air conditioning following a hurricane for the second time in two months.
"The heat in the aftermath of the last storm was insufferable," said her husband, John Terrill, referring to August”s Katrina. "Nobody slept for days. At least we got a good night”s sleep last night."
Wilma knocked out power for hundreds of miles, cutting off electricity to a staggering one out of three Florida residents. Florida Power & Light, the state” biggest utility, said Wilma affected more of its 4.3 million customers than any other natural disaster in the company”s history.
In heavily populated areas such as Miami-Dade County, as many as 98 percent of its customers lost power.
At the Who”s on 1st Deli in Fort Lauderdale, Maria Salvo and her daughters melted ice for coffee and made egg, cheese and sausage sandwiches on gas burners.
"We”re selling whatever we have," she said as people waited in line with insulated cups.
Nearby, the steeple of the First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale was stripped bare, and the sanctuary lost much of its roof. Maintenance worker Don Anderson walked around the grounds with a chain saw, cutting up some of the 100 or so damaged trees.
Anderson said it was a blessing that the cold front that steered Wilma also brought cool weather.
"It”ll keep the tensions down," he said. "The hotter it is, the worse they feel. But we”ll survive long enough to come together. In fact, this is sometimes what we need. The people of America pull together in times of disaster."