For other hurricanes, Nate and Kelly Vedrani, 27-year-old newlyweds, fled their condo in a 16-story beach tower here to take refuge elsewhere.

But for Hurricane Wilma, authorities did not issue an evacuation order for the high-rises that line the beach here, so the couple and many other residents stayed put. It was a decision they regret.

First, a big chunk of the building's roof crashed onto their fifth-floor balcony. Then they heard breaking glass from windows blowing out in neighboring units and feared theirs would be next. Then there was the explosion when the rooftop cooling towers plunged onto the tennis courts.

The Vedranis and neighbors moved into the hallway for safety, but when Kelly Vedrani rested her head against the wall and felt it vibrating wildly, she said, "I lost it."

"That's when I really began to cry," Kelly recalled Tuesday, packing a car and preparing to leave.

But she was also angry.

"I kept thinking we wouldn't have been in that position if there'd been an evacuation order," she said.

As hundreds of thousands of South Floridians struggled to make do without electricity and water in the wake of Hurricane Wilma, forming hours-long lines at darkened supermarkets, drugstores and water distribution sites, there was a sense of wonder: How did this happen?

Many here had anticipated a relatively weak Category 1 hurricane. But Broward County emergency managers say they measured winds of 120 mph, Category 3 strength, as the storm blew past.

"The forecasters told us it would hit the west coast as a [Category] 2 and come at us as 1, and we got a 3," Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle said. "But we know Mother Nature is unpredictable."

The damage to the power and water systems was extensive. About 98 percent of the homes in Broward County and a large proportion in Miami-Dade County had no electricity, local officials said. But people were not sweltering. The weather turned pleasantly cool, eliminating the need for air conditioning.

The widespread lack of drinking water, and in some places, the absence of any water at all, had become a far more serious matter for people who did not heed warnings to have several days' supply ready.

Thousands queued up at water and ice distribution sites in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and then had to wait hours as the trucks were delayed.

"At 9 this morning, they told us the water trucks would be here by noon," Broward Mayor Kristin Jacobs said at 5 p.m. "They're still not here yet. The state can't even tell us where their trucks are."

For several hours, people from Miami ringed the gates of the Orange Bowl, one of the city's three distribution points for ice and water. A city official said 8,000 to 10,000 people received six-packs of bottled water and 20 pounds of ice. But the gates were closed at 7 p.m. after the ice ran out to allow people to return home before an 8 p.m. curfew.

"I think people were caught off guard by the ferocity of the storm," said Ricardo Gonzalez, director of the city's neighborhood services agency.

Residents of beachfront buildings were not asked to evacuate, Jacobs and Naugle said, because oceanfront areas are usually evacuated in anticipation of storm surges. Since Wilma had been forecast to approach from the west, they said, a storm surge was not feared and was not the problem.

The problem was the power of the winds, which forecasters say are more difficult to predict than the hurricane's path.

Scott Kiser, hurricane program manager for the National Weather Service, said the agency's predictions of the hurricane's path were "right on." But, Kiser said, the agency's ability to predict a storm's strength is not what officials want it to be.

"We freely admit intensity is one of our challenges," he said in a telephone interview from the agency's offices in Silver Spring.

Still, people in Broward and Miami-Dade counties had ample warning that a significant storm was on its way. A hurricane warning for South Florida was first posted at 4 p.m. Saturday, he said, more than 36 hours before the storm hit.

Many people assumed that the storm would slow as it crossed the state from the Gulf Coast, but that assumption failed to take into account that Florida is relatively narrow and that this storm's overland track took it through the Everglades

"It's mostly water," he said of the massive wetlands, and hurricanes thrive on water.

Those dicey strength predictions, however, are used by many residents to determine whether or not to evacuate.

"If they say it's a 1 or a 2, you don't worry too much," said Helen Jacobs, 51, who awaited the storm at the Galt Ocean Club by singing and playing a guitar with daughter Andrea, 16. "But then it was like a tornado sandstorm outside my window, and then the cooler fell off the roof, and I was like 'Whoa.' "

Like other South Floridians, the frazzled residents of Galt Ocean Club tried to find ways to cope with the suddenly elemental living conditions.

Some dragged pool water up several flights to use for flushing toilets. Some sought out gas grills for cooking. They endured traffic snarled by the absence of electricity to run traffic signals.

"I don't know how long we can do this," Jacobs said. "But right now, we're only on day two."

Cauvin reported from Miami.

Windows at Broward County's education building in Fort Lauderdale were blown out by Wilma, which struck with greater force than expected.