Ten days after Hurricane Ike, this devastated beach town reopened to residents Wednesday with stern warnings about what still lurks on the island — rotting cattle carcasses, snakes and swarms of mosquitoes — and what isn't there: drinking water, reliable electricity, medical care or sewer service.
After spending hours in traffic that backed up for 10 miles, some residents found their homes in ruins.
"I wasn't prepared for this," taxi driver Patricia Davis said as she waved away mosquitoes and surveyed the remains of her apartment, which had its entrance blocked by collapsed walls, wrecked furniture and sodden clothing.
City officials hoped most of the 45,000 residents who fled before the Sept. 13 storm would stay away until more repairs could be made.
"We didn't promise paradise when you came back here. We've got a lot of work to do. You've got a lot of work to do," City Manager Steve LeBlanc said Wednesday.
The city has limited drinking water, few working sewers, limited electricity and minimal medical facilities. Officials extended the disaster declaration for 90 days.
What Galveston does have is ripening in the tropical heat: Rotting food in piles of debris where houses once stood, millions of mosquitoes and an abundance of snakes. The carcasses of cattle that drowned during the storm are too badly decomposed to be moved; they'll rot in the fields just outside the city limits.
People were warned not to return without tetanus shots — or rat bait.
"Being here today kind of gives me some closure," said Anita Arredondo, who found a pile of rubble where her two-story home once stood. "I have not been sleeping well, worried about what we could save and what we couldn't."
Ken Holman said he wished city leaders had allowed residents to return sooner because it might have allowed him to save more of his mother's belongings from the house she lived in for 56 years. The home was inundated by 4 feet of water.
"Just the fact it took us this long to get in here, that kind of hurts," he said.
Shelters on the way
The city has opened a shelter for 100 newly homeless residents, and officials hoped to set up more shelters on the mainland for residents whose homes are uninhabitable, LeBlanc said.
The city and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are considering a plan to allow residents to live in FEMA trailers in their driveways or near their houses during repairs. But LeBlanc noted he would want all trailers removed from the island before the start of the 2009 hurricane season.
But progress was slow: The island's three electrical inspectors and two plumbing inspectors were ordered to inspect every flooded property before allowing residents to turn on the gas or flip an electrical switch. LeBlanc asked other cities to send more inspectors.
"It's not a healthy and safe place to be at this time," said Mark Guidry, county health director.
At Ruby Holman's house, where water lines stained the walls four feet above the floor, daughters Sharon and Ann wore bright yellow gloves and white masks as they carried away buckets of debris, including prized books.
The carpet inside Holman's home was so soggy, it soaked through everyone's shoes. The air inside the house was so choked with mold and mildew, a visit could only last a few minutes at a time.
Diane and Eddie Howard found that one of their homes, which they had bought only three weeks ago, was destroyed by a fire after the storm.
The other home, which they are trying to sell, was flooded by 8 feet of water, ruining the first floor but sparing many of their personal belongings on the second and third floors.
"I've been through all kinds of hurricanes," said Eddie Howard, who was born on the island 77 years ago. "This is the worst one."
Dead and missing
At least 62 deaths, 27 of them in Texas, were blamed on the Category 2 hurricane and its remnants. The body of a woman who apparently drowned was uncovered in a debris field north of Galveston.
Nearly 50 residents are still missing, LeBlanc said.
Roughly 45,000 of the city's 57,000 residents fled Galveston Island, about 50 miles southeast of Houston, along with hundreds of thousands more from other sections of the Texas coast.
Residents of the island's most severely damaged area, on the island's west end, were allowed to visit their homes but not permitted to stay.
Gov. Rick Perry toured damaged areas Wednesday and announced a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rental assistance program to help hurricane victims.
And in Austin, lawmakers preparing for the legislative session beginning in January were warned to prepare for the cost of the cleanup.
Texas' insurance commissioner told legislators that victims have filed close to 50,000 insurance claims so far, and that figure could reach 300,000 claims, potentially putting a handful of companies at financial risk.
Commissioner Mike Geeslin said the state-chartered Texas Windstorm Insurance Association could see its total claim losses reach $4 billion, and overall hurricane damage is likely to go higher.
Those losses would lead to an estimated drain on the state budget of $400 million per year as insurance companies seek to recoup some of their ballooning windstorm fund payments through tax credits.
Arredondo, whose home was destroyed, salvaged what they could — clothes, a few photographs, some jewelry and, to her surprise, most of her 35-year-old China set.
"I'm looking at this and I just don't know," said Arredondo, 58, who works at a golf course. "I just can't get over this. It's a shock. I could sit here and cry but oh well. We just have to make it day by day. We will be all right."