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In Miami, a swirl of questions on preparedness

President Bush, in Florida on Thursday to visit the areas affected by Hurricane Wilma, was greeted with a barrage of complaints about another instance of government inadequacies in the wake of a natural disaster. NBC News' Michelle Kosinski reports from Miami.
Miami residents wait in long gas lines in Little Habana after Hurricane Wilma hit Florida's east coast
Miami residents wait in long lines for gas in the aftermath of  Hurricane Wilma.Carlos Barria / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

MIAMI — President Bush visited Florida on Thursday to inspect areas affected by Hurricane Wilma.

Unfortunately for the president, a barrage of complaints awaited him about another instance of government inadequacies in the wake of a natural disaster, including questions on the performance of the beleaguered Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

NBC News' Michelle Kosinski reports on the latest from Miami.

What is the situation in Miami today?
Things are a little different. A few more gas stations are opening up, but even those have very long lines. Even before distribution centers open in Miami, people are lined up down the block. But there seems to be better organization at the main distribution center at the Orange Bowl today.

There are Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) people coming in from other parts of the state. We’ve also seem shipments of supplies in tractor trailers coming in one after the other from all over the south — Georgia, Arkansas, Texas. The trucks are coming in full of water and ice, everything they can get over here. 

Even the director of the operation here from FEMA is telling us that it is much more organized today and that we’re going to see the recovery grow over the next few days because people could be without power for weeks.

In Miami-Dade County, about 83 percent of people are still without power, and in Broward County, about 95 percent of people are still without power.

There is just so much damage to the infrastructure that restoring electricity is not simply a matter of stringing up wires. It’s a matter of replacing transformers and putting in new poles. It’s a big job, so it’s going to take a while and that’s exactly what officials have been saying.

It is slowly being restored, and downtown Miami is lit up at night, but a lot of people in their homes don’t have it. So people are flocking to the distribution centers for meals, water and ice.

On Wednesday, I would have said that the biggest problem was getting gas. Today, it's getting a little bit better, but there are still long lines and it is still a big complaint of people. You could spend most of your day waiting in line for gas.

With all of the problems in Washington, D.C., today, between Harriet Miers' withdrawal from consideration for the Supreme Court and the possibility of indictments coming in the CIA leak case, President Bush was probably hoping to head down to Florida for a victory lap from a great response to Hurricane Wilma. Instead, what sort of complaints is Bush expected to be greeted with? 
Well the big question is: Why there haven’t been enough supplies?  That is what we are trying to get to the bottom of today.

FEMA says that they just fulfilled all the orders for supplies that the state put in. So they are saying that they completed their job.

But local officials, including the mayor of Miami-Dade County, says that the way the system works with FEMA he can’t get anyone to tell him when he might get more supplies or where exactly they will come. He says that the system is very cumbersome and disorganized.

FEMA says, no, we’re doing our job. Of course, Gov. Jeb Bush said on Wednesday that he’ll take responsibility for any delays in distributing FEMA aid. But, he didn’t fully explain why there weren’t enough supplies ordered for this county. But, he said, don’t blame FEMA, blame me.

In terms of the blame game you just described, does it seem like people are a bit quicker to complain because they are seeing the parallels with Katrina?
Well, people are somewhat amazed that for a hurricane on a much lesser scale than Katrina, and with so much talk of the need to prepare, prepare, prepare after Katrina, that things didn’t go more smoothly here.

For weeks we’ve been hearing from Gov. Bush and from different officials at the state, local, and federal level, that preparations here were great. They have been saying that this state is prepared and that everything has been put into place — that they have tractor trailers full of supplies ready to go. But, it just turns out that those supplies weren’t enough and they ran out after about one day.

So, the question now is: Why did that happen in the wake of Katrina? And who is responsible for that failure? 

In terms of preparation, there was also a lot of warning before this storm, and a lot of time for individuals to prepare themselves for the storm. Why are people out looking for gas and supplies now, when they knew this storm was coming days before it hit?
That is another big question, because people did have time to prepare. But, Miami, in general, is not an incredibly wealthy city. There are people who don’t really have the means to take time away from their jobs to buy a lot of supplies and prepare.

But, that is certainly a question people are raising. Why didn’t they go out and buy just some more water or something?

Some people willingly tell us, “You know what, I didn’t prepare. I screwed up. I should have gotten more supplies.”  Others have said, “I didn’t think that this hurricane was going to be this big. I thought that the damage was going to be on the west coast. I didn’t even think we would lose power. It never crossed my mind.” Those are the sort of things that people are telling us.

Even Emergency Management officials tell us that they did not expect the damage and the aftermath to be this big in this area. So, that may have been why not enough supplies were ordered. Hopefully we’ll get some answers on that today.

As someone who was most recently based in Miami as a reporter for a number of years, how did the aftermath of this storm differ from other storms in the area you’ve covered?
Well, I was not here during Hurricane Andrew in 1992, so I have never seen this much damage from any storm, or anything this widespread. There have not been any hurricanes that have caused this much damage to Miami, Broward and Palm Beach in a long time.

The Broward Country sheriff told me that he hasn’t seen damage like this in his county in 50 years. 

So it is shocking to see tens of thousands of people line up for supplies and to see Miami dark for a day or two — with no lights anywhere.

It is shocking to see 300 cars lined up for gas before the station even opens. It’s sad to see so much damage. I mean, the place is messy. There is debris all over the place. No one expects to see buildings with the windows just blown out in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale.

It looks like a different place down here.

As of today, things are starting to get back to normal. We are seeing restaurants open and some hotels are open.

But, elsewhere — when you look around and see twisted metal and buildings with no windows, it's striking because we have not seen this sort of thing in such a long time — probably not since Andrew.

As a journalist,there is so much talk all of the time about preparation. So, you go to all of these press conferences and all you can really do is listen to officials talk about how prepared everything is — how many tractor trailers of food they have, how many generators they have and how many people they have ready to help.  

But then when you see it in action, and you see that there isn’t enough food and they could be without electricity for a month, it puts things it into perspective.

It shows that when people say how prepared an area is, it really takes an event to prove it and to put all of that practice into action.