Miami Airport Reopens, but Planes Remain Grounded

Miami International Airport reopened Tuesday, despite having sustained some damage from Hurricane Wilma. There were no in- or outbound flights, but the reopening offered hope of a return to normalcy for those who making a living at the airport.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're going next to south Florida, where life is starting to return to normal. Of course, in Florida for the last couple of years, normal often means that people are busy cleaning up after yet another hurricane. Yesterday people lined up outside hardware stores. They were buying supplies to patch up the damage from Hurricane Wilma. NPR's Luke Burbank reports on some other signs of life.

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

Yesterday afternoon, Miami International Airport was essentially a microcosm of the city. It was damaged by Hurricane Wilma, but determined to reopen as quickly as possible. So even before crews could fully fix the leaky roofs and blown-over fences, officials declared the terminal open.

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

Mr. ANGELO VALDIVIA (Owner, Angelo's Hairport(ph)): Angelo's Hairport, Angelo speaking.

BURBANK: And Angelo Valdivia(ph), owner of Angelo's Hairport--a cleverly named salon--was ready.

Have you guys had business today?

Mr. VALDIVIA: Yes, steady, which is the best thing.

BURBANK: There were no actual flights coming in or out, so the halls of the airport were eerily quiet. The loudest sounds were the piped-in music and recorded safety announcements. But as with many other days, Valdivia was keeping busy giving cuts to some of his regulars, mostly airport employees. He didn't expect the memory of Wilma to last long.

Mr. VALDIVIA: In fact, it just feel like it's back to normal. It always does, yes. It will very soon.

BURBANK: But not everyone was feeling as relaxed about the whole thing. Ian Smith(ph), a baggage handler, had come all the way to work just to charge his cell phone and call his mother to tell her he was OK.

Mr. IAN SMITH (Baggage Handler): Right outside the apartment where I stayed for the storm, there were three houseboats. All three of them sank, one of them completely, and there was a man on board and they were just able to rescue him. So for him it was life-threatening. For me it was--just scared the heck out of me.

BURBANK: And there was good reason to be scared. The storm caused an estimated $10 billion in damage when it roared through Florida. Floodwaters are only now starting to recede in Key West. Mountains of debris are yet to be dealt with and curfews and mandatory water-boiling are still in effect in some areas. Crews have been working around the clock to get the lights back on, but there are still some three million people without power, according to David Paulison, FEMA's acting director.

Mr. DAVID PAULISON (Acting Director, FEMA): Florida Power & Light has said that they will have 50 percent of the people back on line within seven days, and within three weeks should have 95 percent of their customers back with power, so that's a long time for some people.

BURBANK: And even so, at places like Miami International Airport, there were small signs of normal life returning.

Ms. THERESA JO SIMI (Bahamasair): Yes, ma'am, how may I help you, ma'am?

Unidentified Woman: Are there any flights going out to Nassau anytime soon?

Ms. SIMI: Tomorrow we are hoping to have a flight at 3:25. That will be our first flight of the day, and that flight number is UP-228(ph).

BURBANK: Theresa Jo Simi(ph), a smiling middle-aged woman with red highlights in her hair, was sitting at the Bahamasair check-in desk. She was one of the only ticket agents in sight, and she couldn't offer any flights until the next day. But just her presence behind the counter seemed to reassure people.

Ms. SIMI: I would say we were fortunate we didn't incur, you know, greater damage. We are thankful, and we are open tomorrow for service. Thank you.

BURBANK: By early evening, Miami International welcomed its first arrival since Hurricane Wilma, a Brazilian Airlines flight from Sao Paulo. Throughout the night, more flights came and went as the airport, like so many people in the state, continued to pick up the pieces.

Luke Burbank, NPR News, Miami.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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