Ike victims attempt return to Galveston

Published 2:37 pm Thursday, September 18, 2008

Residents of this hurricane-wrecked island city launched an ill-advised attempt to return to their crippled hometown Wednesday, but instead fumed in hours of gridlocked traffic only to be turned away at the bridge.

Traffic backed up for 20 miles along Interstate 45, the one route onto Galveston Island, jockeying for position with utility workers, repair crews and police trying to begin repairs to the city wrecked by Hurricane Ike five days ago.

The city announced Tuesday that people could briefly return under a new “look and leave” plan, causing evacuees all over the state to pack up and head for the coast. Hours later, it abruptly halted the policy out of fear of just the sort of roadway chaos occurring on Wednesday.

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Some people in the long line angrily complained that they’d never heard the policy was rescinded.

“I don’t understand this,” Carlos Azucena said Wednesday, motioning toward repair workers after waiting in line three hours before he was rejected in his third try to go home. “You see those other people. They don’t even live here; I live in Galveston.”

Ike’s death toll in the U.S. climbed past 50 Wednesday and appeared to level off in Texas, where search teams pulled out of Galveston having searched the entire island for survivors. The task force had checked on almost 6,000 people and performed more than 3,500 rescues since Friday. Seventeen people have died in the state.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was reviewing damage during his second stop in the state since Ike.

In Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city where power was still out and people were still lining up at dozens of distribution centers for basic needs, Chertoff said distribution of food and water were going smoothly.

“I’m happy to see that things are moving there,” said Chertoff, who also reviewed operations at FEMA’s primary distribution center. “We will continue to make sure the flow to the (centers) works uninterrupted.”

His appearance comes a day after local officials complained that supplies were slow in getting to distribution points, and that the entire process had glitches.

Chertoff also said the federal government was working to help restore electricity to Houston, where nearly 1.4 million people were without power, probably until next week.

Emergency crews working to restore power in Galveston were among the long line trudging toward Galveston. The crowd of residents was only delaying repairs, officials said.

“It’s not a good scenario,” said Raquelle Lewis, a Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman.

Lewis pleaded with Galveston residents not to waste scarcely available fuel by trying to head home.

Galveston City Manager Steve LeBlanc said police and county officials were working on opening more emergency lanes for first responders.

“We’ll get it cleared up. We’ll get it unclogged,” he said.

The city suspended its look and leave policy because within one hour of the announcement three lanes of vehicles stretching along 15 miles tried to get onto the island.

Officials were working on a new plan to open the island by sections, LeBlanc said.

City and state officials still want people who stayed through the storm to get off the island because of concerns a growing health threat on the island.

Dr. David Lakey, state health commissioner, said he has seen respiratory illnesses, minor traumas such as burns and falls, stress and fatigue.

“The capacity to take care of moderate injuries and illnesses is not here at this time. It’s my opinion that individuals should not be living on the island at this time.”

The University of Texas Medical Branch hospital won’t be able to take patients for a month or more. Seriously injured people are flown to Houston or elsewhere for treatment.

The search and rescue teams of Texas Task Force 1 spent four days making door-to-door searches across the island for those who rode out the storm. Some of the people they found were evacuated while others chose to stay in their homes.

In some cases, searchers were told that a resident had stayed on the peninsula for the hurricane, but had not been seen since.

In those instances, searchers checked the last place where the person was seen, then gave their names to local emergency managers for follow up, said Chuck Jones, a task force team leader. At times, information conflicted, with one neighbor saying a person had stayed for the storm and another saying they had evacuated before it hit.

Galveston County Medical Examiner Stephen Pustilnik said officials had confirmed the first death in nearby Brazoria County, and provided details on the five Galveston deaths: One drowned in a car, one was found in a hotel room, two dialysis patients died when the power went out and their machines failed, and a cancer patient on a breathing machine also died in the power outage.

Most of the more than 50 deaths occurred outside Texas, although authorities may never know if, or how many, people who tried to weather the storm were washed out to sea.

On the Net:

FEMA evacuee hotel info: http://www.femaevachotels.com