Galveston still too bruised for residents’ return

Published 1:14 pm Friday, September 19, 2008

There’s a grocery store open for business on Galveston Island. Cell phone towers are connecting calls. More lights are coming back on at night.

For all the little signs of recovery in this barrier island community thrashed by Hurricane Ike nearly a week ago, Galveston just “isn’t ready” for residents to return. Not even for a quick look around at their battered homes and businesses, officials said Thursday as they pleaded for tens of thousands to wait at least another week before trying to come home.

“By staying away and being patient, you are making it possible for us to get you home in a week or so, instead of the months it would take if the city’s infrastructure were more overwhelmed at this point,” Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said.

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The roughly 45,000 people who fled Galveston Island are among the more than 1 million who evacuated the Texas coast as Ike steamed across the Gulf of Mexico. Gov. Rick Perry said 22,000 people are still living in more than 200 shelters, and he joined Thomas on Thursday in asking for patience.

“I absolutely understand they want to get back to their homes … I’d like to get back to the mansion,” said Perry, who’s been living in temporary quarters since his official residence burned down in June.

Galveston Island remained closed, as did the worse-off Bolivar Peninsula, where the storm’s surge washed entire neighborhoods into the sea. Search teams pulled out of both areas this week after sweeping every house, authorities said.

To the northwest, life took more steps toward normal in Houston, where traffic picked up on the downtown streets less than a week after the massive Category 2 storm blew through. Flight control of the International Space Station was to return Friday to the Johnson Space Center, which shut down a few days before Ike’s strike.

CenterPoint Energy said it had restored power to nearly 900,000 homes, and the utility was fast approaching the point where more people in the nation’s fourth-largest city would be with electricity than without.

The Interior Department said Thursday that Ike destroyed at least 49 of the more than 3,800 offshore oil or natural gas production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, and some may not be rebuilt. The damaged platforms accounted for 13,000 barrels of oil and 84 million cubic feet of natural gas a day; the Gulf produces about 1.3 million barrels of oil a day and 7 billion cubic feet of gas.

To help ease the recovery in Texas, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff urged private mortgage lenders Thursday to cut some slack to financially strapped homeowners. The Housing Department had earlier issued a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures on FHA loans, a reprieve for about 7,000 homeowners who were in foreclosure or on the cusp.

“A lot of times, after a disaster, people come back, they have expenses they didn’t count on,” HUD Secretary Steve Preston said as he stood alongside Chertoff. “We want to make sure they have breathing room before they have to worry about mortgages (that) will become an additional challenge for them.”

Chertoff was in Southeast Texas for the second straight day, watching over the federal relief effort that has delivered hundreds of trucks of ice, water and food to the region’s more than 5 million people.

Ike’s death toll in the U.S. stood at 56, with 22 in Texas, and there was still the fear that more victims would be found. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, bodies continued to turn up for more than a year.

“It’s very much unknown,” said Galveston County Medical Examiner Stephen Pustilnik. “There are large parts of the county that haven’t been searched. Just like in Katrina and Rita, debris has to be sifted through.”

The search of Bolivar Peninsula for survivors ended after five passes across the island, where Ike’s storm surge scraped entire blocks of beach homes into the sea. Officials allowed an animal rescue group to come in Thursday and search for pets.

“Today we needed to get a feel for the area and see if there is any hope left for the animals here,” said Richard Crook, the rapid response manager for Best Friends Animal Society.

While Galveston was not nearly as devastated as Bolivar Peninsula, the city is home to many more people. Many of the city’s services — including water, sewer and power — are recovering but remain several days away from returning to full function, said City Manager Steve LeBlanc. The only hospital on the island is getting some power, but not enough to care for the nearly 60,000 residents of Galveston Island.

“We don’t have adequate water at this point for just taking a shower, flushing a toilet,” LeBlanc said. “We’re not there yet.”

Authorities let residents and business owners back onto the island briefly Tuesday to “look and leave,” but quickly reversed course after the decision created traffic jams that backed up for miles Tuesday and Wednesday on Interstate 45, the only road onto the island. Officials ruled out a resumption of that policy Thursday.

“It’s more confusing,” said Thomas, the mayor. “We just want to bring everyone home, and we’ll try to do it next week.”

Galveston Police Chief Charles Wiley said since Ike hit, authorities have seen only 11 cases of looting — a rate he called “phenomenally low.”

“It’s really some young people who’ve probably been left on the island or been located on the island and have very little to do,” he said.

In Port Arthur on the Louisiana line, police and the Coast Guard said scattered looting persisted through the middle of the week.

“After the water started receding, the looters came in here by boat, so we needed to come out here and actually take control of everything,” Chief Warrant Officer James Simmons said.