The few hundred holdouts on Texas' ravaged Bolivar Peninsula will be required to leave in the next few days, and officials said Tuesday they are ready to use emergency powers to empty the barrier island scraped clean by Hurricane Ike.
The threat came as the death toll in the Houston area rose by six, bringing the number of people killed in Texas to 17. The new deaths, all after Ike made landfall, were tied to carbon monoxide poisoning, a home fire and falling tree limbs. Ike has claimed 47 lives in 10 states as it spread inland.
In the Bolivar incident, Judge Jim Yarbrough, the top elected official in Galveston County, said the roughly 250 people who defied warnings they would be killed if they rode out the storm in the rural coastal community are a "hardy bunch" and there are some "old timers who aren't going to want to leave."
The Texas attorney general's office is looking into the legal options available to force the remaining residents leave, Yarbrough said. Local authorities are prepared to do whatever it takes to get residents to a safer place.
"I don't want to do it," he said. "I'm doing it because it's in their best interests."
Too much damage
The sliver of land is just too damaged for residents to stay there, and the population must be cleared so that recovery can begin, officials said. With no gas, no power and no running water, there is also concern about spread of disease.
Entire neighborhoods on Bolivar Peninsula — home to about 30,000 people during the peak of the summer vacation season — were simply wiped away by the height of Ike's storm surge. In the town of Gilchrist, there are only few buildings still standing. Ferry service to the island is out, as is the bridge on its eastern end. The road that traverses the island is washed out, too.
Home designer and builder Bobby Anderson limped off the peninsula late Monday in a pickup truck battered by the storm, saying Ike swept out to sea a woman who had clung with him to a building's rafters. When asked to describe their ordeal, he refused.
"I'd really rather not," Anderson said.
Aaron Reed, a spokesman for Texas Parks and Wildlife, said Gilchrist "is almost completely gone. Like somebody took a razor and went pffft."
More bodies expected
Where there is no debris, only level ground, Yarbrough said officials may never know if people who tried to weather the storm were washed out to sea. So far, there are no confirmed fatalities, but Yarbrough and other officials said he didn't think that would hold.
"I'm not Pollyana. I think we will find some," he said.
Yarbrough said officials would stress to those trying to stay in their damaged homes that they will be allowed to return, and were looking into setting up shelters in Galveston County so these individuals won't be too far away from their homes. But he said those who live on Bolivar "need to be ready for a marathon, not a race."
Elsewhere in hard-hit southeast Texas, some residents were being allowed back into emptied communities to dig through their demolished homes — but only briefly.
Across Galveston Bay, Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said residents can "look and leave" during daylight hours. Security was tight, and checkpoints would block anyone without a photo ID saying they were a Galveston resident from coming in.
Thomas also said the estimated 15,000 people still living on Galveston Island are encouraged to leave, since the city has only limited limited water and sewer service, and no electricity.
On Galveston’s mostly deserted streets, dogs, cats, and cattle roamed free. Many of the elderly huddled in damaged houses, walking or using bikes when they had to leave because cars were destroyed or damaged. Some pushed salvaged shopping carts down the seawall avenue filled with crates of bottled water and plastic brown pouches holding army MREs obtained from relief centers.
“They’re all over the place,” said Sheila Savage, a Galveston resident who has been bringing food and water to elderly friends who wouldn’t leave because they have no family or other relatives elsewhere. “Their homes were all they have.”
Aid centers to quadruple
Across the Texas coast, tens of thousands of people waited for food, water and ice, for the electricity to return to their homes or their first hot meal and shower.
The number of distribution centers was to be quadrupled to 60 by the end of the day. Still, for some, the wait for a return to normalcy could be days. For others, it could be weeks.
"A good bath would be nice: have the fire department swing by and spray us down," said Carlos Silliman as he sat on a picnic bench in front of his Galveston Island home, where 18 inches of water flooded his garage and ruined a freezer full of venison. "I'm ready to have a cold beer and read the paper."
For most, such luxuries are far beyond the horizon. Many service stations have no gasoline, and some major highways remain under water. More than 30,000 evacuees are still living in nearly 300 public shelters, and roughly 2 million people in Texas alone are without power.
Ike's survivors have already walked for miles and waited for hours at supply distribution centers, gobbling up all that was offered: 1 million bottles of water, 1 million meals and 600,000 pounds of ice in just the first 36 hours after the storm passed.
It's not enough, and those dispatching truck after truck to distribution centers around the city know it. One such center north of Houston drew 10,000 people Monday in search of food and water.
Texans seek fairness
"That process will continue 24 hours a day," said Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman Marty Bahamonde. "We'll never be empty of trucks at the staging area and the goal is to never be empty at the points of distribution."
The relief roll-out appeared to defuse tensions that had flared between FEMA and local officials after Houston Mayor Bill White vowed to hold FEMA accountable for delivering on its commitments.
Officials from Texas pressed for equal treatment from federal aid agencies. "I have asked the president and the administration to just treat us as fairly as they treated Louisiana back during Katrina," said Texas Gov. Rick Perry. "Texans will take care of the rest."
FEMA said it will deliver 7.5 million meals over the next few days, along with 5.1 million gallons of water, 19.2 million pounds of ice and 80,000 tarps.
Ike victims are in for tough times, FEMA Administrator David Paulison said. "Some people will be out of their homes for not only weeks, but months," he said.
President Bush, shortly before arriving to survey the damage and recovery effort, said Texas residents are "very frustrated" by the slow pace of recovery but "my message will be that we hear you and we'll work as hard and fast as we can to help you get your lives back up to normal."
Dozens of curfew violations
A curfew remains in force for Houston, barring people from being on city streets from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., and officials were working to prevent looting and theft.
Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt said the city has issued 108 citations and arrested 33 people who violated the citywide curfew that began on Sunday night. Hurtt said the arrests included several people in a stolen car, with stolen items inside.
Officials on Galveston Island said it could be months before the city of Galveston reopens. The main gas and a primary electric transmission line to the island were severely damaged by Ike, which also tore at the wharves in the city's port. Officials warned that mosquito-borne diseases could begin to spread after one elderly man was airlifted to a hospital covered with hundreds of bites.
"Galveston can no longer safely accommodate its population," City Manager Steve LeBlanc said. "Quite frankly, we are reaching a health crisis for people who remain on the island."
Still, there are signs the recovery is moving forward. Houston Assistant Fire Chief Rick Flanagan said emergency calls dropped dramatically by Monday afternoon, and Mayor Bill White rescinded a mandate to boil water. White also said residents of the Clear Lake area, which had been under a mandatory evacuation order, could safely return home.
At the supply distribution centers, the lines were long but most people patiently waited. At Texas Southern University, where lines of cars stretched two hours or longer for bottled water and bags of ice, 33-year-old LaChandra Noel arrived with her 11-year-old deaf and blind daughter in a wheelchair. Those ahead of Noel let her go to the front and get water and ice first.
"It all seems to be working," said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. "People are being patient."
At the Justine Apartments in downtown Galveston, residents were surviving with a hibachi grill, a coffee maker, and a stash of beer, wine and liquor. Meals Ready to Eat were dropped off by the National Guard. Linda Lennon, 58, suggested the beef stew.
"We're all sticking together," she said.