Florida Left Powerless by Wilma

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Hurricane Wilma inflicted more damage on Florida's power system than any storm in history, and it could take until the end of the hurricane season next month before electricity is restored to some homes, according to officials at Florida Power & Light.

An estimated 3.2 million customers lost power in half of the state's 35 counties, says Mayco Villafaņa. "That is a new record for us," Villafaņa told TIME. "The earlier record was Hurricane Frances last year, which essentially affected 2.8 million customers."

Villafaņa attributes the devastation to the high winds that tore down power lines, causing more than half of FP&L's substations to automatically shut down. There are 400 substations statewide, and more than 240, including all of those in Broward County where the eye of the hurricane passed, went offline.

The good news, he says, is that 95 percent of the customers should have their power restored by Nov. 15. Hurricane season officially ends on Nov. 30. He could offer no time frame for restoring power to the remaining 5 percent of affected households.

National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield says the hardest-hit areas of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties experienced Category 1 and 2 force winds. "This was no Andrew," he says, recalling the Category 5 storm that ravaged Miami-Dade in 1992.

Despite recent criticisim of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Mayfield had nothing but praise for the agency's response to Wilma, noting that FEMA had positioned recovery supplies such as ice and water in the area prior to the hurricane's making landfall.

"FEMA ought to be holding their heads high on this one," Mayfield says. "We've done everything we can. It's a disaster. We've been preaching you really ought to be able to be self-sustained for three days, have water and supplies on hand before the cavalry. But the cavalry had been here even before that. They had a presence in the state way before the hurricane hit."

There have, however, been some snafus in the distribution of ice and water. "There was a problem with the supply not flowing as smoothly," says Miami-Dade communications director Paula Musto, adding that she still doesn't know what caused the problem. Miami Beach is the only city under a boil-water order in the entire county, she says, so this is "not a New Orleans situation. People would like the water, but it's not a life-and-death situation."

FEMA is in the process of remedying the logistics situation, she adds. The county is providing police escorts to rush the supplies to the various distribution centers. "FEMA is in charge of logistics," says Musto. "We have been told there are hundreds of trucks on the way to South Florida. When we see them we will greet them with a big smile."

One item that appears to be in very short supply is gasoline. The Florida Turnpike is limiting gasoline to $20 maximum per vehicle. That's about 7 1/2 gallons per customer. The wait times for people to get to the gas pumps in the four southern plazas from Fort Pierce to Miami-Dade run between three and five hours.