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Traffic chaos as locals try to get into Galveston

Ike Texas
Signs on Interstate 45 warned people to stay away from Galveston on Wednesday, but closer to the island traffic was backed up as residents tried to get back in.Matt Rourke / AP
/ Source: news services

Search teams pulled out of Galveston Wednesday having combed the entire island for survivors, their long convoy heading back to Houston and past a miles-long line of cars trying to get into coastal communities despite orders to stay out.

The backlog of traffic frustrated transportation officials, who pointed out that among those idling in the choked interstate were emergency crews and trucks hauling resources badly needed on the island.

"It's not a good scenario," said Raquelle Lewis, a Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman.

Lewis would not estimate the number of cars caught in the backlog, which extended miles past the first checkpoint that is 19 miles north of Galveston. Lewis pleaded with Galveston residents to not waste scarcely available fuel by trying to head home.

Much of the confusion stemmed from Galveston officials' short-lived decision to allow people onto the island Tuesday to examine their property briefly and head back out. Many along the interstate were unaware that the "look-and-leave" policy had been suspended.

“We could not accommodate that many people at one time,” said city manager Steve LeBlanc. “We were hoping to have more of a trickle of cars than a tidal wave.”

Carlos Azucena, 47, said he had tried three different times in the last 24 hours to get on the island. He said he waited in line for three hours before his final rejection Wednesday.

"I don't understand this. You see those other people," Azucena said, waiving at utility workers and contractors being let on to the island. "They don't even live here, I live in Galveston."

Search strategy
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.

The task force checked on almost 6,000 people who said that they did not need assistance getting out and performed a total of 3,540 rescues since Friday, said Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry.

There were some cases where 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. Pustilnik also gave details on five deaths in Galveston County: Three had serious medical conditions prior to the storm but did not evacuate, one drowned in a truck and one was found in a hotel room.

Ike's death toll officially stood at 51, 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.

In Houston, searchers in boats used sonar to sweep for debris clogging navigation routes into one of the nation’s busiest ports.

Most residents in the nation's fourth-largest city remained without power, 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.

In Scott Terrace, a neighborhood of one-story wood frame houses, Myrle Smith, 59, said many of her neighbors were old or sick and didn't have cars to get to an emergency food distribution site less than one-and-a-half miles away. Trees, massive limbs and garbage littered the area and there was no power.

"Nobody came on our street to see if we needed ice or water. It's not fair," Smith said. "I'm worried, I'm worried."

Tension with FEMA
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.

"There are great people working at FEMA," White said. "Let’s just say some people may not be appropriate for their responsibilities.”

Locals will get to voice their concerns directly to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who was back in Texas for a second time to check on recovery efforts.

He first traveled to Houston to 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.

In Galveston, those who stayed through the storm's arrival last weekend have few neighbors, almost no services and little sense of when that might change. Toilets in Galveston had not flushed for four days and a medical officer warned of emerging cases of diarrhea.

On Bolivar Peninsula, just east of Galveston, about 250 survivors 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.

Yarbrough added that he expected more bodies to be recovered in Galveston County.

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.

Mayor 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.

Escaped tiger
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."