A week after Hurricane Wilma ravaged south Florida, cutting off power to 3.24 million residents, roughly a million people are still without power, clean water, medicine and telephone lines.
Despite the crisis, there has been little relief, however, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), from the state, or from 5,700 National Guard troops on the ground. Many wonder: How did a Category 3 hurricane cause the largest power outage in U.S. history?
Karen, an event planner living in Miami-Dade, still feels the shock of the storm, nine days after it hit. With little relief from FEMA or the state, helping out with day to day survival needs has fallen to other residents, who themselves are struggling to get by.
"I tried to get around to help out, but I have to conserve gas," she told RAW STORY on Sunday, a week after Wilma, a previously category 5 hurricane that had weakened to a category 3 before it made landfall in Florida, caused severe damage to South Florida’s gold coast.
The people who appear to be the most affected in the aftermath of this disaster are the elderly, the poor, and minorities.
"Wait until people start finding bodies rotting inside their homes," she said.
Karen’s concerns are shared by many in all three of the counties which have seen the most damage and have gotten the least attention: Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach. Many residents have no electricity, find themselves barricaded in their homes due to debris and downed power lines, and cannot call out for help because the phone lines are still not operational.
Many are essentially locked inside their homes. Elderly or infirm residents in Broward, Miami-Dade and West Palm Beach counties who live in high-rise buildings are unable to leave their homes to stand in line for supplies because the elevators are not operational.
According to Tom Veenstra, spokesman for Florida Power and Light (FPL), there are still close to a million residents without power. As of 9:00 AM Tuesday, roughly 719, 600 people had no power: 176,900 in Palm Beach, 207,900 in Miami-Dade, and 310,200 in Broward county.
"This storm caused the most outages of any in our company's history,” Veenstra said.
This reporter observed few FPL trucks in areas of Broward county during the first four days of recovery. Groups of residents carpooled around Broward, where possible, in hopes of seeing restoration work in progress. They too found little visible sign of activity.
The concerns grew louder as locals began to wonder about elderly residents living in high-rise buildings, where elevators have not been operational due to the power outage. Those stuck inside their homes, including those who are unable to climb stairs or may have been hurt during the storm, are unable to make contact with the outside world and have scant access to supplies, including medicine, food and water.
Karen, along with other residents who fared better during Wilma's devastation, has taken it upon herself to attempt to deliver supplies when possible. She asked that her last name not be used for fear of retribution for speaking out.
"It is not like there is much being delivered in general,” Karen said. “We have to stand in line for up to seven hours at a time and sometimes for no reason. Sometimes there are simply no supplies available. FEMA says they are coming, we line up and wait, and no one shows up.”
"If something like water is available, I try to get what I can for my neighbors who are elderly," she continued.
Eugene Kinerney, a spokesman for FEMA, responded to questions regarding the delay.
“Supplies moved faster into affected areas than in past storms,” Kinerney said in response to an email query. “Local distribution of supplies was hampered somewhat by road conditions and local staging issues, but on the whole, supplies moved into the region very quickly. Much of that was thanks to pre-placement of commodities by FEMA before the storm struck. Gov. [Jeb] Bush, Director Paulison and countless others warned citizens to be prepared to survive on their own for three days following the storm.
“Unfortunately,” he added, “many of those you saw lined up on television weren't prepared to survive more than a few hours.”
The Saturday night before the storm, however, Governor Bush told the public not to “hoard” supplies. By all expert accounts, the storm that started off as a super category 5 around Mexico would be diminished to a category one or, at worst, a category two by the time it reached Florida.
This reporter had metal accordion storm shutters, which are built into the structure of the house. During the four storms last year, the worst of which was Frances, the hurricane shutters remained intact.
During this storm, the metal shutters were pulled out of the house’s facade and the windows and roof started to collapse. We had believed that at worst a category two hurricane was heading toward South Florida.
The storm that hit South Florida was later reported to be a category three, and by other counts, possibly a category four.
"What has got us curious, from early on, this being a category three hurricane, we have seen pockets of damaged transmission lines in the very western, very remote counties of South Florida ... in which we have some concrete transmission poles, that have been snapped in half like matchsticks in some places,” Veenstra said.
Florida Power and Light workers were surprised by the damage that Wilma caused, Veenstra stated. He said they have a “forensic” team which is trying to examine what caused such catastrophic damage to the power grid.
The team has questions about whether Wilma was stronger than reported or whether some other phenomena was at work.
”Is it tornadoes?” he asked. “Is it microburst? Is it some sort of wind shear?”