CBSN

Millions Powerless In Florida

People walk down a flooded street in Naples, Florida 24 October, 2005, after the trailing edge of Hurricane Wilma passed through. Wilma was downgraded Monday to a Category Two storm after weakening as it moved along the southern coast of Florida. Wilma, with winds reaching some 177 kilometers (about 100 miles) per hour, continued to be a potent storm however, pounding Florida with torrential rain and strong winds.
Getty Images/Stan Honda
Repair crews across Florida struggled Tuesday 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.

CBS News correspondent Trish Regan reports that it will take one month to restore power.

"This is the biggest event that we have ever experienced in terms of a hurricanes," Florida Power and Light's L.T. Dwinder, who is in charge of the company's storm management operation, told Regan.

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.

Regan reports that thousands in Broward County

in the hopes of getting the basics, but many grew frustrated by the long wait.

"You have a line going all around the field to get one bottle of water and one bag of ice. That's absurd," one woman told Regan. "By the time these people get here with that bag of ice, it will be melted when they get home."

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.

President Bush promised swift help for the storm-ravaged areas. He signed a disaster declaration and was briefed on the situation by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, acting FEMA director David Paulison and Mr. Bush's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush.

"We have pre-positioned food, medicine, communications equipment, urban search-and-rescue teams," the president said. "We will work closely with local and state authorities to respond to this hurricane."

"Tomorrow's going to be better than today," Gov. 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.

CBS News correspondent Jim Acosta reports that the damage could have been worse but Wilma hit one of nature's greatest shock absorbers — the Everglades — sparing south Florida from even more destruction. But conservationists warn that increasing development in the Everglades is

to sponge away storm waters.

"You continue to create a situation like we just saw in New Orleans where you don't have those wetlands protections that were once there," says Teresa Pierno of the National Parks Conservation Association.

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 Tuesday 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.