Things are so bad here that even the Dunkin' Donuts truck isn't safe. Desperate for ice, St. Lucie County Administrator Doug Anderson flipped into something approaching martial law in the days since Hurricane Frances tore through, going so far as to commandeer two doughnut trucks for their precious cargo of frozen water.
He has sent police cars bumping over sloped highway medians to intercept passing gas tankers and has talked the local health department into letting him fill firetruck tanks with drinking water. But what he has done most is plead for help -- to anyone who will listen.
"A lot of agencies that made commitments didn't come through," Anderson said Tuesday as he sat on an ice chest in an emergency center filled with air mattresses and blankets. "We're pulling every trick we can think of."
This is ground zero of a hurricane's aftermath -- frustration, anger and long lines everywhere. Even as one of the largest relief efforts in Florida's history swung into full force on Tuesday, millions of people were crying out for their power to be restored, waiting in staggeringly long ice lines and jockeying for fuel. Here in St. Lucie County, which President Bush is scheduled to visit on Wednesday, fights broke out in quarter-mile-long gas lines, forcing law enforcement officers to stand guard to keep the peace. Curfew violators were locked in a jail that had no water or electricity.
In some respects, this is exactly what federal and state officials predicted. Days before Frances kicked its 105-mph winds into the state, Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael D. Brown and Gov. Jeb Bush (R) were already on television counseling patience. The amazing size of the storm, with its 60-mile-wide eye, made it obvious that damage would be so widespread that getting help to affected areas would take an excruciatingly long time.
"We're not dealing with a one-county disaster or a two-county disaster -- we're dealing with a massive disaster that affected most of the state of Florida," said Steven Glenn, deputy emergency response team leader for FEMA.
Huge stockpiles of relief supplies -- including water and baby formula -- were stuck in northern and western Florida, as well as neighboring states, while Frances plodded across Florida, dropping heavy rain for three days. Now that the storm is gone, moving equipment into the southeastern coast of Florida has been arduous. Even so, state and federal crews have been able to get 140 loads of ice and other supplies into badly thrashed counties. Some relief convoys have gotten stuck in traffic as residents eager to check on their homes have poured back into damaged areas, clogging roads. Again, public officials have pleaded for patience, noting that poor road conditions kept the relief convoys from rolling sooner.
But just try that logic on someone who has not taken a shower in four days, Anderson said Tuesday.
"These people are up against it," he said. "You try not eating for two days."
The anxiety fills the airwaves. On WZZR-FM here, Dr. Rich -- a popular local radio personality -- led a days-long communal rant against the relief effort, sharply criticizing federal disaster managers "for not keeping their promises."
Dr. Rich's listeners turned into watchdogs. One man called to say he was outraged that he had seen several power company trucks parked for hours outside a restaurant where he was eating.
"Nobody's telling them what to do," the man railed, his voice full of bitterness.
The power companies are the object of anger and suspicion. Nearly 1 million customers were without power on Tuesday, and the word was dire here in Fort Pierce, where power was not expected to be restored until Saturday.
The men and women trying to put Florida back together are themselves coping with the punishing effects of Frances. In St. Lucie County, the homes of a dozen firefighters were uninhabitable. The evidence was all over the emergency operation center: rumpled pillows on the ground, and bone-weary men slumped over tables.
Gas lines stretched into the horizon. Robert Martin pushed a grimy white sedan carrying a huge barking Labrador over the asphalt, inching toward a pump. A tall man next to a shiny Lincoln Continental yelled at him: "You're going the wrong way. You're screwing up the system."
At the wheel, his stepsister, Tammy Fisky, 20, held her hands over her ears. They may never get gas. They should have stayed where they went to flee the storm: a back room bunk at a gas station Martin's father owns miles away.
While the lines stretched out, endless and angry, Anderson paced through the halls of his emergency operations center with a floppy legal pad covered with scrawled notes about his quagmire: two-thirds of the schools damaged in a county of 230,000 people, broken sewer plants, angry island residents fighting to get back to their homes. But he does not need his notepad for one number: $2.5 billion -- the preliminary estimate of damage in his county, a summer vacation haven and spring training baseball favorite evolving into a heavily populated year-round community.
Anderson has no regrets about the steps he took. He would stop the Dunkin' Donuts truck again. He would ask the local manager of the Wal-Mart distribution center to offload warehoused food if he ran out of grub for his emergency crews again.
"When you are in a state of emergency, people understand," he said. "Dunkin' Donuts will understand. Wal-Mart will understand."
Others were aggressive, too. In Palm Beach County, 450 people spent Monday night in jail for curfew violations. Captain Bruce Barkdoll said the sheriff's department has advised residents who plan to venture out at night to bring a toothbrush and a teddy bear to keep them company in the slammer.
"We're dead serious," he said.
Just to the north, Anderson's mood was improving as dusk descended on his mushy county, where wet is a constant state, not just a hurricane phenomenon. The governor -- whom he had met a few years ago during an outbreak of wildfires in the county -- had called. They joked that they would have to get together sometime when there wasn't a disaster.
A FEMA crew had finally shown up to establish a station where people could apply for disaster relief. And somebody was rustling in the kitchen, with the promise of a real meal at last. Under the fluorescent lights, the smell of burgers was in the air.
Grunwald reported from West Palm Beach. Staff writer Mary Fitzgerald in Washington contributed to this report.