(Oct. 28) Miami produce distributors and importers scrambled to maintain a semblance of normalcy following Hurricane Wilma, despite curfews, truck shortages, port closures and power and telephone outages.

The extent of the losses in warehouse coolers, and disruption to imports such as South American berries or asparagus weren’t immediately known, but companies that planned ahead were spared from the worst Wilma had to offer.

Back-up generators were the key to survival for companies that were able to rebound quickly.

“We have asparagus in the pipeline, so we didn’t skip a beat,” said Rick Durkin, salesman for Bounty Fresh LLC, Miami, which imports Peruvian asparagus by plane.

Durkin said Bounty Fresh increased its shipments from Peru immediately before the storm and braced for Wilma’s arrival. Soon after the power went out — many areas in Dade and Broward counties still lacked power on Oct. 27 — generators kicked in and kept the company from losing a box of asparagus. Even with Miami International Airport out of commission from 11 p.m. Oct. 23 to the afternoon of Oct. 25, Bounty Fresh was in business, Durkin said.

“The biggest problem we’ve had is getting trucks to ship products out of Miami because a lot of the trucks that came into Florida with produce haven’t been unable to load because the receivers (retailers) have been closed,” he said.

The Produce Connection Inc., just four blocks from Miami’s terminal market, ran telephones and lights off a generator for two days until the power came back on the night of Oct. 27, said Marc Dudley, assistant to the company’s owner. Unfortunately, the company’s coolers weren’t backed up by generators, damaging berries, leaf lettuces and other perishables.

The Produce Connection was not alone. Many companies lost product on the market, and only a few had power by Oct. 27, Dudley said. The Produce Connection is near a hospital, so power was restored earlier. Dudley said local media were reporting 63% of the 3.2 million people without power in the region still didn’t have power on the afternoon of Oct. 27.

“It’s been pretty rough around here,” he said.

Shipments from California and Washington trickled into the market area several days after Wilma hit, Dudley said, and The Produce Connection was able to supply some fruits and vegetables to hospitals in Broward and Dade counties.

Wilma arrived during Argentina’s blueberry season and just as the Chilean shipments began arriving. Importers rely on air cargo during the early season, and Miami International is a key arrival point for East Coast berry shipments from both countries, as well as other Caribbean and South American countries.

Berry importer Dave’s Specialty Imports Inc., Miami, diverted blueberries from Chile and Argentina and blackberries from Guatemala to airports in Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles, said Mike Bowe, salesman in the company’s Cincinnati office. His father and company president, Dave Bowe, had calls transferred there before Wilma made landfall, knowing that telephone service would likely be interrupted.

He was right. The Miami office has one working telephone line. Although Dave Bowe can dial out, he can’t receive calls, so his son has played phone tag with his father’s cell phone to relay messages.

Michael Hollister, vice president of sales and marketing at Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., Watsonville, Calif., said it’s unlikely supplies of berries from Argentina would be disrupted. Problems at Miami can be avoided by diverting product to New York.

Shippers mentioned another problem: drivers had to beat a curfew, loading up their product before nightfall. Dade County established an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, and Broward County’s extended from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., Dudley said.

Even though the airport began accepting cargo Oct. 25, Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades sustained major damage. Most ships were diverted to the Port of Miami, which isn’t processing cargo after dark, said U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency public affairs officer Jennifer Connors.

Customs brokers, who handle the importation process for companies, were sent to an off-site cargo clearance center because the Miami Free Trade Zone didn’t have power, Connors said. The customs agency added staffing to deal with the increased pressure to return inspections to normal.

Once the airport was cleared for traffic, flights quickly stacked up on runways, Connors said. The first two planes were from LAN Airlines S.A., Chile’s air carrier. Cargo included flowers, but Connors didn’t know if berries were also on the planes.

“Last night, cargo flights just started coming in,” she said Oct. 26. “They just started coming in one after another. It’s like they were just sitting on the runway waiting for the ‘go’ signal.”