Gov. Jeb Bush took the blame Wednesday for frustrating delays at centers distributing supplies to victims of Hurricane Wilma, saying 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.
Many Floridians were still struggling to find food, water, ice and gas on the third day of recovery from Wilma, waiting in line for hours — sometimes in vain. Miami-Dade’s mayor called the distribution system flawed and said at least one relief site of 11 in his county ran out of supplies.
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.
Frustration with Florida’s relief effort flared Tuesday, when trucks carrying the first wave of relief — food, ice and water — either arrived much later than local officials expected or didn’t show up at all.
Problems abound with aid supplies
Myriad problems affected supply deliveries, according to local and state officials. Cell phone service was down or spotty, complicating communications between government officials and truck drivers. Some drivers got lost on their way to distribution points and 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.
The governor’s brother President Bush planned a Thursday visit to South Florida, which suffered damage from the storm estimated at up to $10 billion.
Florida Power & Light had restored power by Wednesday to about 20 percent of the 6 million people had lost it. The state’s largest utility warned, however, that full restoration could take weeks.
Aid distribution went more smoothly Wednesday than when more than two dozen distribution sites first opened Tuesday. But at least one location in Miami-Dade ran out of supplies, and others ran low. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez called the relief process “flawed.”
Among the first in line Wednesday at Miami’s Orange Bowl distribution site was Josephina Diaz, who said she arrived at 6 a.m.
“I don’t have a choice,” she said. “I have medicine and food I can’t allow to spoil.”
Police monitoring gas stations
Police watched over the few gas stations that were open as a precaution in case motorists’ tempers flared while they waited for up to five hours to buy fuel.
“This is like the Third World,” said Claudia Shaw, who spent several hours in a gas line. “We live in a state where we suffer from these storms every year. Where is the planning?”
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.
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.
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.
In Mexico, meanwhile, 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.