Power Slowly Being Restored in Florida

Simple tasks like buying gas, cooking food and even turning on the lights got a little easier Friday, with power restored to nearly half the homes and businesses that lost it during Hurricane Wilma.

Lines still formed at gas stations early in the day, but there were more open than earlier in the week, the state Department of Environmental Protection (search) said.

"I think overall it's getting better and better each day," said Donald Cloman, who bought gas at a station with a short line in Fort Lauderdale.

The department said oil companies got backup generators to their retailers, and the state's largest utility, Florida Power & Light (search), focused on restoring electricity to stations and supermarkets. Power returned for most of the fuel depot at Port Everglades, which supplies stations across South Florida.

The utility said it had returned power to roughly 45 percent of the more than 6 million people who lost it, but said restoration of service for all of the remaining 3.6 million people might take until Thanksgiving week.

In the days after Wilma (search) trekked across the state's southern section on Monday, many gas stations had fuel but no electricity, and others that had power ran out of supplies. Tempers ran short and shouting matches started at some stations when people tried cutting in line.

But things were slowly returning to normal in South Florida as restaurants, supermarkets, car washes and even movie theaters reopened.

The region's three largest airports were open to commercial traffic, and tourists Friday were allowed to return to parts of the Keys, where Wilma's storm surge caused extensive flooding. Key West was to remain closed to visitors until Monday.

President Bush got his first look at Wilma's damage Thursday, taking a helicopter tour with his brother Gov. Jeb Bush (search). The president also visited the National Hurricane Center (search) in Miami and made a surprise stop at a Baptist church where volunteers served storm victims a barbecued pork lunch.

"People are getting fed," the president said. "Soon more and more houses will have their electricity. Their life will get back to normal."

Risk Management Solutions, a risk modeling firm, said new estimates projected that Wilma's insured losses in the United States ranged from $8 billion to $12 billion, up from previous estimate of $2 billion to $10 billion. That would make Wilma the third costliest hurricane in U.S. history, after Katrina and Andrew.

The company said its increase was made after a closer look at damage to roofs and high-rise windows. It also said that as power remains out, many companies will file business interruption insurance claims.

Deadly Wilma plowed across Florida after a destructive ride through the Caribbean and Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. The storm was blamed for 14 deaths in Florida, including five from carbon monoxide poisoning. Wilma also killed at least 12 people in Haiti, four in Mexico and one in Jamaica.

A U.S. cruise ship was sent to the Mexican island of Cozumel to deliver aid and pick up any stranded American tourists, but most appeared to have left. In Cancun, lines at makeshift airline ticket counters had nearly vanished.

Mexican President Vicente Fox (search) asked hotel owners not to lay off Cancun residents who rely on tourism for their livelihood. On Isla Mujeres, people complained of limited access to drinking water and homes destroyed by high wind, waves and flooding.

In Florida, State Attorney General Charlie Crist said 279 complaints related to price gouging incidents had been made as of late Thursday. The punishment in fines ranges up to $15,000 per incident.

Local and county officials have complained about the latest federal relief effort, stirring memories of the criticism directed at Bush and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (search) following Hurricane Katrina.

A day after nine of the 11 water and ice distribution sites in Miami-Dade County ran out of supplies, only one ran out Thursday, with four others running low.

FEMA spokeswoman Frances Marine said the agency dispatched more than 300 truckloads of food, water and ice Thursday to distribution sites in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

"We are furiously pushing out commodities," Marine said.

With more than a month to go in this year's record-breaking hurricane season, Tropical Storm Beta formed Thursday in the southwestern Caribbean, becoming the season's 23rd tropical storm — the most since record-keeping began in 1851. Beta was expected to threaten Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua but not the United States.