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Amid the rubble, progress flickers

Here and there amid the devastation, there were signs of hope.

Chet's Seafood on Sunday served up fried grouper and cheese grits. Eckerd's opened. For the lucky few, toilets flushed, water flowed and lights came back on.

In the city hit hard by Hurricane Ivan, progress is still measured in small steps.

"I'm not saying it's not frustrating; it is," said Cindy Pratt, a 42-year-old Pensacola native who spent more than eight hours driving round trip to nearby Crestview for gas and a generator to power her father's oxygen equipment. "But you're out driving and suddenly you see a working red light and you realize something is getting accomplished."

But for many, Sunday was another day spent in long lines for gas, ice and food. Most power customers in Escambia County still have no electricity. Getting around is difficult because of damage to an Interstate 10 bridge and other key roads, and most beach residents still have not been allowed to go see what is left of their homes. Hundreds remained in shelters in the Panhandle.

President Bush visited the Pensacola area and Alabama on Sunday, his third hurricane-related visit to Florida in five weeks. He flew by helicopter over some of the hardest-hit areas and walked along a street with some of the worst damage.

"I want to tell the citizens of this part of the world that we're praying for you, that we're get help our here as quick as we can and that we ask God's blessings on you and your families," Bush said.

Lynn Woodruff's home was heavily damaged and the family's restaurant across the street was demolished. She spoke briefly with Bush. "Out of something bad," she said, "at least he made you feel good."

Ivan is blamed for 16 deaths in Florida and a total of 47 in the South and Northeast. It is blamed for 70 deaths in the Caribbean. Bush has declared disaster areas in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and North Carolina, freeing up federal money for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans and other programs.

Since Ivan hit the Panhandle last week, nearly 156,000 customers have had power restored. But nearly 280,000 customers in 10 counties are still without power.

A fire in downtown Pensacola on Sunday gutted a two-story wooden Roman Catholic convent as power was being restored to the area. Firefighters were able to save a school next door to St. Michael's Convent, but the vacant convent was declared a total loss.

Escambia County emergency management director Michael Hardin said the relief effort is going as well as can be expected. He said county officials are pushing hard to get water service restored.

"You've got supplies at your house for three days but if you can't flush the commode, that's tough," he said.

The limited restoration of power and water averted a crisis when dialysis clinics across the Panhandle began opening. That saved county emergency officials from flying dialysis patients to Atlanta for treatment.

Pensacola city employees were told to report for work today. And the Escambia County Commission in an emergency meeting Sunday banned burning debris and vegetation without a permit from state forestry officials. They fear fires will get out of control and there will not be enough water to extinguish them.

At Emerald Coast Christian Church, where Ivan obliterated the sanctuary's anteroom, the congregation sang How Great Thou Art. They had climbed over a carpet of broken glass, roof tiles and other debris to worship.

"There's nothing that can't be replaced," said Thea Coker, the wife of pastor Don Coker. "We just wanted to be here to thank God for taking care of us."

Down the street, Randy Saunders served regulars at Chet's Seafood from two catering vans.

"At some point you want to get to work to get your mind off how bad it is," he said. "The longer you sit around thinking about it, the worse it gets."

During the Escambia County Commission meeting, residents of the beach areas demanded to know when they can see their homes.

"I'm not going to sugarcoat it for you guys. It's bad," County Administrator George Touart said.

From a Coast Guard boat in the Little Sabine inlet, the shores of Pensacola Beach resembled a war zone. Dozens of homes and condos were demolished. The roof of the Holiday Inn was smashed, while two giant holes were torn in the side of the Dunes hotel.

"One of our police officers who was over in Iraq says this is worse than that, because when they drop bombs they are more directed and you have a little pile of rubble," said Pensacola City Manager Tom Bonfield. "This is just so many miles of it, you just can't believe it."

Meanwhile, residents continued to wait in long lines.

Cousins Cantrina and Patricia Norris initially ate the contents of their freezer and cooked on a charcoal grill. But Sunday they waited for an hour in a hot car at a Federal Emergency Management Agency distribution center to get two bags of ice, 24 bottles of water and a carton of ready-to-eat military meals. Cantrina's 18-month-old son, Jaylyn, took his afternoon nap in the back seat.

Cantrina had used a half-tank of gas running errands and waiting in lines. The women said the meals will come in handy after subsisting for 24 hours on snacks they found at a store.

"No one has any real food," said Patricia Norris, 27. "It's been cakes, chips and water."

Both women worked in a Pensacola Beach hotel as housekeepers, an area devastated by Ivan and inaccessible because of damage to the Bob Sikes Bridge.

"The beach is no more," said Cantrina Norris, 22. "I don't know what we'll do about rent."

Times staff writer Robert Farley contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press.