Post-Ike Texas won't change anytime soon

September 17, 2008 5:28:52 AM PDT
Life after Ike has come to mean misery by degree for many along the Texas coast. Up in Houston, most residents in the nation's fourth-largest city remained without power into Wednesday morning, making it tough to track the latest information on where to pick up supplies. For most, the electricity wasn't expected back on for at least another week. Things were far worse in Galveston and other gulfside communities that bore the brunt of Hurricane Ike's strike. Those who stayed through the storm's arrival last weekend have few neighbors, almost no services and little sense of when that might change.

Despite the primitive conditions, thousands sought to get back onto Galveston Island on Tuesday after officials opened a brief "look and leave" window so people could check on their homes and businesses. The resulting traffic jam backed up for miles and led officials to call off the temporary return just a few hours later.

And there are still about 250 survivors on the nearby Bolivar Peninsula. But they don't want to leave, even though officials insist they must go so the cleanup can safely begin.

"It is pretty rough conditions over there," said County Judge Jim Yarbrough, the top elected official in Galveston County. "We have access issues for delivery of emergency services. Our goal is to vacate the peninsula."

Officials at the Texas attorney general's office are trying to figure out how to legally force the holdouts to leave, Yarbrough said. The peninsula is too damaged for residents to stay, and with no gas, no power and no running water, there is also concern about diseases spreading.

Ike's death toll officially stood at 48 Wednesday, with most of the deaths coming outside of Texas. Authorities may never know if, or how many, people who tried to weather the storm were washed out to sea. So far, there are no confirmed fatalities, but Yarbrough said he didn't think that would hold.

"I don't doubt we will find some more fatalities," he said. "We have folks out there looking. But so far, not having any more (fatalities) countywide truly is a miracle."

Authorities blamed all nine deaths in the Houston area on debris-clearing work done after the storm, house fires or carbon monoxide poisoning from generators. Dozens of others had been treated for carbon monoxide poisoning, health officials said.

Residents again waited in line for hours Tuesday at the nearly two dozen supply distribution centers set up in Houston to hand out food, water and ice. Mayor Bill White complained the Federal Emergency Management Agency wasn't bringing in the supplies fast enough, and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett had personally taken over coordination of efforts to hand out relief supplies.

They'll get to voice their concerns directly on Wednesday, when Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff returns to Texas to observe recovery efforts. He'll first travel to Houston and meet with local officials before visiting Galveston. In the meantime, FEMA officials in Houston said they are refining glitches in the relief effort and delivering millions of meals and water every 24 hours.

White eased the city's curfew, now from midnight to 6 a.m., but urged motorists to stay off the streets after dark. So far, about 100 people have been cited for curfew violations and 94 have been arrested for looting, authorities said.

Rhonda Clayburn, who lives in a trailer park in the Houston suburb of Klein, said she's been told it could be six weeks before she has running water again. Her family has been using an aquarium to flush the toilet.

"We have a lot of people in here. It's going to get nasty with no toilets," she said. "How do we live without a toilet for a month?"

FEMA spokesman Marty Bahamonde said FEMA will begin paying for 30 days of hotel expenses for homeowners whose houses are uninhabitable. FEMA plans to reimburse the hotels directly.

A lion was trapped in the sanctuary of a Baptist church in Crystal Beach, and a tiger was on the loose after escaping from an exotic pet sanctuary. An official with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the tidal surge from Ike left a "sheen" of oil on the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge, potentially endangering rare birds and other animals.

Smaller communities also felt the sting of shortages. Handwritten cardboard signs warned travelers in a remote area near Webster "Help No Power" and "No Power, Water Well, And Septic is Down, Please Don't Forget."

York and Teresa Linebarger, who live near the signs, said a neighbor put them up to remind people about the three weeks the community endured without power after Hurricane Alicia in 1983.

"This area is so secluded, most people don't even know it's here," said Teresa Linebarger, 60.

But her husband noted that compared to the people on the Bolivar Peninsula, "we're in pretty doggone good shape."

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Associated Press writers Andre Coe, Chris Duncan, Monica Rhor, April Castro and Deb Riechmann in Houston, Pauline Arrillaga in San Antonio, Allen G. Breed on Bolivar Peninsula, Jay Root in Austin, and Christopher Sherman and Jon Gambrell in Galveston contributed to this report.

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