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Texans mired in Ike's aftermath

THE NATION

September 15, 2008|David Zucchino and P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writers

HOUSTON — Weary residents of the Texas coast foraged Sunday for water, ice, generators and gasoline as rescuers continued to save people trapped by widespread floodwaters a day after Hurricane Ike flooded roads, destroyed homes and businesses, and knocked out power to nearly 4 million people.

Under drenching morning rain that submerged more roads and underscored a mood of misery and frustration, emergency officials tried to unsnarl a last-minute snag that delayed deliveries of U.S. government food, water and ice to several million people struggling to cope. Federal officials blamed state leaders for abruptly changing distribution plans Sunday morning.

The number of people rescued along the coast rose to nearly 2,000, many of them from hard-hit Galveston and Bolivar, barrier islands south of Houston. Rescuers vowed to go door-to-door to find holdouts who refused to obey evacuation orders.

The rescue effort, involving 50 helicopters and 1,500 searchers, is the largest in the state's history.

Utility companies delivered the sobering news that restoration of power could take up to a month.

Nearly 4 million people were without electricity in Texas and Louisiana, according to utility officials. Crews managed to restore power to several neighborhoods in and around Houston.

About 2,000 holdouts in Galveston, given the opportunity to evacuate their storm-tossed homes, agreed to board buses for shelters in San Antonio and Austin. City officials estimate that about 40% of the island's 57,000 residents stayed in their homes during the hurricane.

Three bodies were recovered in Galveston on Sunday, one of them from a submerged car, but local officials refused to provide details. That brought the number of deaths attributed to Ike in Texas to at least seven -- five in Galveston. A total of 21 deaths in nine states have been blamed on the storm, according to an Associated Press tally.

Federal officials said the hurricane destroyed as many as 10 oil production platforms, adding to pressure on gasoline prices in the face of a temporary shutdown of much of the oil and gas industry along the Gulf Coast because of the storm.

Houston police, concerned about potential looting, put the nation's fourth-largest city under a weeklong nighttime curfew.

In Houston and its suburbs, people who rode out the storm emerged from their soggy homes to jam Wal-Marts and home improvement stores such as Lowe's, standing in long lines that wound into flooded parking lots.

Some of the more than 1 million people who evacuated began trying to return home, straining resources already in short supply.

All of it -- the sweaty waits in line, the flooded interstates, the rampant mosquitoes, the desperate search for life's basic necessities -- fueled a growing sense of frustration among ordinary residents and elected officials alike.

Residents peppered radio and TV news programs with angry calls about price gouging at gasoline stations and food stores, low water pressure and a delay by emergency authorities in distributing food, water and ice.

At the same time, elected officials took to the airwaves to warn those who evacuated not to try to return home. "Do not come back to Galveston. You cannot live here right now," Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas pleaded with residents desperate to return to the closed-off island.

The chief executive of Harris County, Judge Ed Emmett, begged residents to stay off Houston's roads, where two interstates intersecting downtown were closed.

"It's a very dangerous situation out there," Emmett said after he and Houston Mayor Bill White had to cut short a driving tour of the city because of flooding.

Emmett and White warned the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Sunday morning that it would be "held accountable" if it did not deliver emergency supplies as promised.

The agency was roundly criticized for bungling the emergency response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Through gritted teeth, White said: "We expect FEMA to honor our request and their commitments. . . . If all these supplies don't materialize, they'll get low marks."

But federal officials said state authorities suddenly changed plans Sunday morning and asked the federal government take over distribution of supplies after earlier promising to take care of that task themselves.

"An unanticipated glitch" is how Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff described it during a news conference in Houston attended by White and Emmett.

"The original understanding was that we would pre-position supplies around the state," Chertoff said. "The arrangement was that we'd bring it to a distribution point, then the state would take the supplies and move them from these distribution points, and move them to other points of distribution" on the local level.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was touring the region by helicopter, could not be reached for comment to explain the shift.

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