Floridians form lines for gasoline, gradually recover

Frustrated Floridians waited in long lines for gasoline as the sun rose Wednesday, hoping that the delayed arrival of relief on the first day after Hurricane Wilma struck would not be repeated. Police officers watched over the few gas stations that were open just in case tempers flared while motorists waited for hours to buy fuel.

"I'm usually awake by this hour, but I need gas for my generator so I can go to work and make some money," said Hector Vasquez, 36, who repairs windows. "This shouldn't be this difficult."

There was limited progress on Tuesday: electricity was restored to the luckiest homes and businesses. A few restaurants opened, more streets became passable and even trash removal returned to some overwhelmed areas.

Still, despite all the small causes for celebration in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Wilma, much of the focus remained on the immense problems that could plague the state for weeks during its recovery from the Category 3 storm.

The 21st storm in the worst Atlantic hurricane season on record, Wilma was blamed for at least five deaths in Florida alone. Before hitting the United States, it killed at least four people in Mexico, one in Jamaica and 12 in Haiti as it swirled across the Caribbean.

Trucks carrying the first wave of relief in Florida, food, ice and water, either arrived much later than local officials expected or simply didn't show up at all. Hundreds of people lined up outside one home-supply store, desperate for cleanup and other items. Drivers waited five hours at gas stations, and at a handful of fast-food restaurants open in the Miami area, burgers were available, to those willing to endure two-hour waits.

FEMA spokeswoman Frances Marine urged Floridians to be patient, and reminded residents that problems such as the ones that popped up Tuesday were why officials suggested that people have 72 hours' of essential suppliesm, including water, available ahead of Wilma's arrival.

"People will have their needs met," Marine said. "The bottom line is that there's a plan in place."

Gov. Jeb Bush predicted that his "battle-tested" state would steadily see better days, and his older brother, President George W. Bush, planned a Thursday visit to assess damage in Florida.

National Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was going to Florida Wednesday to tour the state's emergency operations center in Tallahassee and survey Miami-area flooding and other damage by helicopter.

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 US$10 billion (Ђ8.3 billion), and the landscape of the state's most populous region, the Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach area, was laden with destruction.


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