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Florida: Just When You Thought It Was Safe...

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The glib maxim that Floridians like to bandy is "hurricanes are the price we pay for living in paradise." But for a good part of the past couple years, paradise has begun to feel like purgatory.

Wilma, for example, was expected to be a routine nuisance, having apparently expended much of its fury on Mexico and Cuba. At its approach, Florida kids celebrated school being called off; some even went on hurricane sleepovers. On Sunday night before the storm hit, Jonathon Pedroz, 13, ate pizza and played 2 Fast 2 Furious video games with friends in a 23rd-floor waterfront condominium north of Miami. They fell asleep at 3 a.m., but were roused at dawn when Wilma arrived with more than 100 m.p.h. winds. Since Wilma came ashore on Florida's west coast, many had hoped it would weaken before it hit the east; instead it sped across the Everglades like a high-power airboat. At Pedroz's building, the storm shattered sliding glass doors, tossed furniture and blew down walls. After the assault, much of the 26-floor building's fašade looked as if it were bombed. "We thought the building was going to break in two," said a shaken Pedroz. "I don't know why the owner didn't put up hurricane shutters."

Kids can be excused for not anticipating the violence of a Category 2 storm like Wilma. But why weren't adults more vigilant? The Category 5 horror of Andrew occurred just 13 years ago. Yet the condo association at Pedroz's building actually forbids hurricane shutters. High-rise condo windows touted as hurricane-proof exploded during Wilma and rained shards on posh strands like Miami's Brickell Avenue; thousands of Florida Keys residents dismissed orders to evacuate; lines for gasoline and water stretched for miles just a day after the storm because so many folks had failed to stock up, while state and county officials admitted they hadn't ordered up enough relief supplies; and a remarkable two-thirds of Florida Power & Light's electricity substations shut down, leaving a record 3.2 million customers to wonder in the dark—some perhaps until Thanksgiving—about the utility's pre-storm diligence.

Chalk it up, say Floridians, to blow burnout. With hurricanes hatching like Caribbean cockroaches, the state has had to gird for at least eight major storms in the past 14 months—four since June. "You just can't expect people to be on edge, to be ready for war, all the time," said doctor's aide Mike Dorsainbille, 31, as he waited for gas in Pompano Beach, in hard-hit Broward County. But any criticism of Florida paled in comparison to the scrutiny put on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for which Wilma was a chance to redeem itself after the debacle of Hurricane Katrina. FEMA did perform more ably this time; but it fell short of redemption thanks to a Rube Goldberg bureaucracy that left local officials like Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez flummoxed by the "intricacies" of getting simple items like ice to "PODs" (points of distribution). Governor Jeb Bush tried to shield his brother George W. Bush's Administration by insisting that people "blame me" for supply shortfalls; but Gloria Williams, 45, whose apartment building was shattered by a massive fallen tree, wasn't persuaded. After the ice that she says she stockpiled before Wilma ran out, she hauled her family to "PODs" in a futile search for more—then waited five hours Thursday in Coral Springs to be told at 1 p.m. in the hot sun that FEMA would not have ice there as announced. "All I've learned about FEMA," said Williams, "is that it promises things it simply can't deliver."

More critical than ice were gas and the electricity to pump it. Floridians were stunned to hear that power might not be fully restored until late November, and just as chagrined to realize that FPL, which serves the nation's most hurricane-prone state, has one of the most tangled and antiquated feeder-line systems to repair. "This is the greatest country, but I'm heartbroken," said Zhanna Turetskaya, a Coral Springs gas station manager who came here from Belarus seven years ago, as she scanned a throng of angry customers wanting to pump the 10,000 gallons she had ready for them. "We're spoiled here, but now when it comes to the things we really need we can't get it done." Gas-powered electric generator use was massive in South Florida; five deaths resulted from carbon monoxide fumes overpowering homes. In total, 14 people died across the state, more than in Mexico and Cuba combined. Damage in Florida could reach $10 billion.

Inevitably, there was talk among Floridians about moving elsewhere in the country, especially since windstorm insurance is already so exorbitant that it might as well be the state's income tax. "My 80-year-old parents feel caught between a rock and a hard place," said a woman who had come from New Jersey to Pompano Beach to care for them. "How many times a year can they deal with roofs being blown off and medications running out?" But then the sun comes out, the beaches calm down, the golf courses beckon and the perverse mask of paradise is on again.