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Still a mess, Galveston to reopen soon

Businesses were beginning to reopen, cell phone service was improving and power was coming back, but leaders warned that Galveston remains dangerous more than a week after Ike.
Ike Texas
Cleanup volunteer Ed Bennett, of Acton, Mass., throws out damaged carpet from the Galveston Bible Church on Sunday.Rick Bowmer / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

As repair crews work to make this hurricane-ravaged island city inhabitable for the thousands of residents set to return this week, the mayor is seeking more than $2 billion in emergency federal aid.

The final price tag to fully restore Galveston after Hurricane Ike plowed ashore early Sept. 13 and displaced most of the 57,000 or so residents is still unknown.

Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas, along with officials from the Port of Galveston and the University of Texas Medical Branch will meet with a Senate ad hoc committee in Washington on Tuesday. They will seek $2.3 billion in emergency appropriations: nearly $1.2 billion for Galveston; about $600 million for the city's hospital; and about $500 million for the port.

Hurricane Ike battered Galveston with 110 mph winds and a 12-foot storm surge and has been blamed for 61 deaths, including 26 in Texas.

More than 1 million people evacuated the Texas coast, and about 45,000 residents fled Galveston Island, about 50 miles southeast of Houston.

Many to return Wednesday
Many are expected back Wednesday, the first day officials were allowing residents to return to an island still sorely lacking basic services. Galveston City Manager Steve LeBlanc said officials are working on a plan to provide temporary shelters on the mainland for those who find homes they can't live in. But LeBlanc stressed the shelters would be available only for a short time.

"It's not there to sustain life on the island," LeBlanc said. "We cannot possibly provide shelter and homes and setups for you long-term."

City leaders are also looking at setting up a shuttle service to take residents from the temporary shelters on the mainland to their houses during the day so they can make repairs and clean up.

LeBlanc reminded residents who planned to come back Wednesday that the city still only has limited medical, power, water and sewer system capabilities, and that life for them will be difficult upon their return. It could be several weeks before services are restored.

Fuel and other essentials remained scarce and police will indefinitely enforce a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew once the island reopens Wednesday.

Still, the island is far from deserted — at least 15,000 people ignored mandatory evacuation orders before and after the storm, and many of them were still there Sunday.

Wearing jeans and rubber boots, clutching Bibles and weeping between hymns, residents of the storm-shattered Texas coast comforted each other at makeshift church services.

About 50 people came together on a basketball court outside the Oak Island Baptist Church, just south of Interstate 10 about a mile from the tip of Trinity Bay. They sat on folding chairs or simply stood, forced outdoors by the 1-inch layer of mud left inside the single-story red brick building by floodwaters that tossed pews like matchsticks.

A demolished mobile home was still lodged among trees, many of them snapped by the storm's 110-mph winds that somehow left the church's trio of 20-foot white crosses still standing. Across the street, piles of debris had sprouted, proof of the labor undertaken since the storm blew through last weekend, and of the work yet to come.

"I know it's hard. Looking around, it's tough," the Rev. Eddie Shauberger told the congregants. "But there is a God, and he has a plan for our lives."

Houston schools reopen
Similar services were being held on Galveston Island and throughout the Houston area, where power had been restored to enough residents that schools planned to hold classes Monday for the first time since the storm.

In Galveston, Bobby and Pamela Quiroga sought succor at a Mass set up in the historic Hotel Galvez. They went to their Roman Catholic church a week ago, the day after storm arrived, but it was closed.

"It's just good to be around people," Bobby Quiroga said. He added, letting his voice trail off, "When you feel a wave shake your house ...."

The newly married 42-year-olds were still trying to gather their senses eight days after watching their homes and businesses flooded by Ike's 12-foot surge.

"Fourteen steps, and we watched the water come up all the way up — even to the floor. Surreal," Quiroga said, his wife leaning on his shoulder.

She dabbed her swollen eyes with a hand towel and vowed never to live on the island again.

"When I fall asleep," she said, "I see the water rising."

Observances in the hardest-hit spots weren't overflowing with residents. Most of Galveston won't reopen until Wednesday.

Planes spray to ward off mosquitoes
But island leaders emphasized that Galveston would remain dangerous and parents were warned their children could be exposed to infections from storm debris and other hazards. Planes continued spraying the island to control mosquitoes. Officials urged those returning to wear masks to protect from mold and to properly dispose of spoiled food to stave off vermin.

Teams of cadaver dogs were still working their way through rubble and debris on Bolivar Peninsula, which suffered even heavier damage than Galveston. Evacuees from the peninsula will board dump trucks and other heavy vehicles this week to examine their homes, since the main road is impassible in many spots.

Authorities had blamed the storm for 26 deaths in Texas and 61 total in the U.S., including a utility contractor from Florida who was electrocuted Friday while trying to restore power in Louisville, Ky.

Power had been restored to most of the customers in Texas whose electricity was cut by Ike, though the state said about 875,000 remained in the dark Sunday.

Entergy Texas, which serves most of Southeast Texas east of the Trinity River, said Monday it expected to have electric service restored to its hardest-hit areas by Sunday — a week sooner than previous forecasts. Not included in the forecasts are High Island and the Bolivar Peninsula, where the transmission infrastructure will have to be rebuilt, said Joe Domino, president and chief executive officer of the Beaumont-based subsidiary of Entergy Corp.

About one-third of customers in the Houston area remained without electricity Monday morning.

Some football diversion
Whether the power was coming through the wall or from a generator, people throughout the region watched the Houston Texans try to win one for the wretched back home.

Maine Williams, a 49-year-old cotton warehouse worker, tuned in the football game with friends in Galveston on a portable TV they set up in an alley. The humidity, mosquitoes and flood muck that covered the neighborhood was made bearable thanks to the grilled hamburger meat, pig tails, cabbage and potatoes, along with the camaraderie and cold beer.

"It's like normal," Williams said, adding that he really wanted was to see his girlfriend and family who evacuated before the storm on buses.

"We're worried about our people," he said. "We want them to come home."

As for the game, which the Texans lost on the road to the Tennessee Titans, Williams wasn't too concerned with the outcome: "I'm a Dallas Cowboys man!"