Jammed with thousands of anxious, storm-weary travelers looking for any way out of South Florida Wednesday, Miami International Airport became an oasis of electricity in a dark county.
The airport that locals so often criticize was one of the few places in South Florida they could find the most basic things: Working toilets. A cash machine dispensing cash. Outlets to charge cellphones. There was hot food and drinks full of ice.
''This is heaven, but I'd still rather be at home,'' said Lynn Hazell of Woodstock, N.Y., who evacuated from Key West to Fort Lauderdale as Hurricane Wilma approached.
``We were supposed to be back at home Monday night, but we were staying at a friend's house in Plantation. Part of the roof collapsed.''
Yedad Ilana of Haifa, Israel, had been staying at a friend's house in Hollywood and came to the airport hours before her flight home. She didn't mind the wait.
''Hamburgers! Hamburgers!'' said Ilana, one of many enjoying Burger King, where the lunchtime line snaked out of the restaurant. ``It's so good to have hot food -- and working toilets.''
For many travelers, however, MIA meant only more frustration.
Wednesday was the airport's first attempt at normal operations.
American Airlines said it would launch about half its normal schedule, and computer screens announcing its departures often brought bad news.
The 1:50 p.m. flight to Boston - Canceled. The 4:16 - Canceled. Cali - Canceled. Cancún - Canceled.
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport will open this morning at 8 a.m., and some airlines were allowed to fly empty planes to Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday night to get a head start on departures this morning.
The airport stayed closed Wednesday because it didn't have enough water pressure to operate emergency sprinklers in case of a fire.
At MIA, Linda Semper stood with a pile of luggage in the American Airlines ticketing area, unsure when she would go home to Boston. She and 20 friends had been on a Royal Caribbean Cruise to the Bahamas, and the boat stayed two extra days at sea to avoid Wilma. It berthed Wednesday.
'[The cruise] said, `You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here,' '' Semper said, laughing. ``A lot of us can't get home until tomorrow morning. We don't know where we are going to go.''
For her, MIA was a significant step down in luxury from her cruise, where she slept on clean, crisp sheets. She planned to spend Wednesday night in the airport, most likely on its purple carpet.
Even though MIA was running at half its normal capacity, the terminals were jammed because people were arriving six, eight and sometimes 10 hours before their scheduled flights.
Pedro Daldegin of Sao Paulo was in Orlando when Wilma crossed the state. He didn't know its severity.
As he and his wife drove to Miami on Florida's Turnpike Tuesday night, they were spooked when they reached Broward and saw only darkness.
''It was really scary,'' Daldegin said. 'I said, `Where is the city? We should be seeing Fort Lauderdale now.' ''
His American Airlines flight to Sao Paulo wasn't taking off for eight hours, but he and his wife were forced to go to MIA early.
''We wanted to see things, but we had no gas in our rental car,'' Daldegin said. ``We couldn't find any gas anywhere. We wanted to go to a mall -- any mall -- but we couldn't get there.''
Many Broward travelers are still stuck.
Sound technician Robert Spahr of Las Vegas adjusted to his interrupted business trip.
While staying at the Fort Lauderdale Wyndham by the airport, he helped some of the other guests, escorting two elderly women from their fourth floor room in the dark hotel to the breakfast area.
It was his first hurricane, but it didn't phase him too much, since he grew up in Wichita, Kan., which he described as Tornado Alley.
''I'm a happy-go-lucky guy,'' Spahr said.
Most trans-Atlantic service at MIA was running normally, said Trenae Floyd, an MIA spokeswoman. Virgin Atlantic Airlines dispatched an extra Boeing 747 to Miami to help ferry stray passengers to London, and Alitalia, British Airways, Lufthansa and Air France all were planning Wednesday departures.
One Air France passenger to Stockholm, Sweden, wasn't having any problems. He was waiting to board his regularly scheduled flight and rode out the storm in Orlando.
''I was a little nervous about whether we were going to take off, but this is easy,'' Claes Warpe said.
Herald staff writer Jerry Berrios contributed to this report.
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