FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) – Repair crews across Florida struggled yesterday to restore electricity to up to 6 million people, reopen the region’s airports and replace countless windows blown out of downtown high-rises during Hurricane Wilma’s ruinous dash across the state.

Sarah Royce
Victor Zubizarreta, left, and Nuria Hurtado walk down 14th Street and Brickell Avenue in Miami yesterday. (AP PHOTO)

Officials said it could take weeks for Florida’s most heavily populated region – the Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach area – to return to normal.

Water and gas became precious commodities, and people waited for hours for free water, ice and food. Lines stretched for blocks at the few gas stations with the electricity needed to pump fuel, and arguments broke out when motorists tried to cut in line. More than 500 people waited outside one store for cleanup supplies.

But barely 24 hours after the Category 3 storm struck, there were signs of recovery.

“We have power! We have power!” several residents of Miami Lakes chanted as they ran out their back doors when the lights came on.

The quantity of debris was daunting: Pieces of roofs, trees, signs, awnings, fences, billboards and pool screens were scattered across several counties. Damage estimates ranged up to $10 billion.

“Tomorrow’s going to be better than today,” Gov. Jeb Bush said.

Some of the worst damage was in downtown Fort Lauderdale, where Wilma was the strongest hurricane to strike since 1950. Winds of more than 100 mph blew out windows in high-rises, many built before Florida enacted tougher construction codes following Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

The school district’s 14-story headquarters – known as the “Crystal Palace” – was stripped of nearly its entire glass facade on one side.

“We’re going to have to fix it in a way that is stronger,” schools superintendent Frank Till said.

Government officials and business executives scrambled to repair buildings and find other places to work. Broward County court officials were trying to determine whether sessions could be held at the damaged courthouse in coming days.

Some schools and courts closed for the week. Orders to boil water were issued in many locations. Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties imposed overnight curfews.

Miami International Airport, the busiest U.S. hub for Latin American travel, scheduled its first flight since Wilma for late yesterday afternoon. The Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach airports remained closed. At least 2,000 domestic and international flights were disrupted, affecting hundreds of thousands of fliers, when Wilma knocked out electricity and damaged roofs, towers, fences and other equipment.

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