HOUSTON – Weary residents of Texas’ Gulf Coast foraged Sunday for water, ice, generators and gasoline as rescuers continued to save people trapped by widespread floodwaters a day after Hurricane Ike knocked out power, flooded roadways, and destroyed coastal homes and businesses.
Under drenching morning rains that submerged more roads and underscored a mood of misery and frustration, emergency officials tried to unsnarl a last-minute snag that delayed deliveries of U.S. government food, water and ice to several million people living on the edge. Federal officials blamed state leaders for abruptly changing distribution plans Sunday morning.
The number of people rescued along the coast rose to nearly 2,000, many of them from hard-hit Galveston and Bolivar, barrier islands south of Houston. Rescuers vowed to go door to door along the coast to find holdouts who refused to obey mandatory evacuation orders.
The rescue effort, involving 50 helicopters and 1,500 searchers, is the largest in the state’s history.
About 2,000 holdouts in Galveston, given the opportunity to evacuate their storm-tossed homes, agreed to board buses for shelters in San Antonio and Austin. City officials estimate that 40 percent of the island’s 57,000 residents stayed in their homes during the hurricane.
Three bodies were recovered in Galveston on Sunday, one of them from a submerged car, but officials declined to provide details. That brought the number of deaths attributed to Ike in Texas to at least seven – five of them in Galveston. A total of 27 deaths in eight states have been blamed on the storm, according to an Associated Press tally.
Federal officials said the hurricane destroyed as many as 10 oil production platforms, adding to upward pressure on gasoline prices in the face of a temporary shutdown of much of the oil and gas industry along the Gulf Coast because of the storm.
Houston police, concerned about potential looting, put the nation’s fourth-largest city under weeklong nighttime curfew.
In Houston and its suburbs, people who rode out the storm emerged from soggy homes to jam stores, standing in long lines that wound into flooded parking lots.
Some of the more than 1 million people who evacuated began trying to return home, straining resources already in short supply.
To make matters worse, utility companies delivered the sobering news that restoration of power could take up to a month. Nearly 4 million people are without electricity in Texas and Louisiana, according to utility officials. Crews did manage to restore power to several neighborhoods in and around Houston.
All of it – the sweaty waits in line, the flooded roads, the rampant mosquitoes, the desperate search for life’s basic necessities – fueled a growing sense of frustration among residents and elected officials.
Residents peppered radio and TV news programs with calls about price gouging at gasoline stations and food stores, low water pressure and a delay by emergency authorities in distributing food, water and ice.
At the same time, elected officials took to the airwaves to warn those who evacuated not to try to return home. “Do not come back to Galveston. You cannot live here right now,” Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas pleaded with residents desperate to return to the closed-off island.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett begged residents to stay off Houston’s road system, where two interstates intersecting downtown were closed because of floodwaters.
“It’s a very dangerous situation out there,” Emmett said after he and Houston Mayor Bill White had to cut short a driving tour of the city because of flooding.
Emmett and White warned the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Sunday morning that it would be “held accountable” if it did not deliver emergency supplies as promised. The agency was criticized for bungling the emergency response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Through gritted teeth, White said, “We expect FEMA to honor our request and their commitments. … If all these supplies don’t materialize, they’ll get low marks.”
But late in the day, federal officials said state authorities changed plans Sunday morning and asked the federal government to take over distribution of supplies after earlier promising to take care of distribution.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff called it “an unanticipated glitch” during a news conference in Houston attended by White and Emmett.
“The original understanding was that we would pre-position supplies around the state,” Chertoff said. “The arrangement was that we’d bring it to a distribution point, then the state would take the supplies and move them from these distribution points and move them to other points of distribution” on the local level.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was touring the region by helicopter, could not be reached to explain the shift.
A FEMA spokesman, Marty Bahamonde, assured residents that the agency had 5 million liters of water and 5 million military ready-to-eat meals stockpiled in Texas and ready for delivery.
But trucks carrying the supplies were held up by roads blocked by floodwaters or storm debris, he said.
FEMA supplies did reach Galveston and were distributed to residents Sunday, Bahamonde said.
However, according to Rep. John Culberson, a Republican who represents parts of Houston and Harris County, rescue crews and first responders ran out of food and water at a staging area in Houston while waiting to be sent to the coast.
“FEMA needs to take care of their business,” Culberson said, then added: “We’re going to find out who fouled up – the state or FEMA.”
The quest for food threatened to overwhelm supermarkets, convenience stores and drug stores that reopened in parts of Houston and its suburbs.
At a Walgreen’s Pharmacy, Heather Harris, 24, clutched a basket full of canned Starbucks coffee and strawberry-flavored breakfast bars while searching for other supplies.
“It’s enough to feed me for at least a few more days,” Harris said. “Right now, we’re all planning our futures a meal at a time.”
There wasn’t much to choose from: There were two pints of milk and a single carton of eggs left on the otherwise barren shelves.
Harris considered grabbing them but delayed too long. A man shoved aside the second-grade teacher and, with a glare, snatched up the milk and eggs.
In Orange, Texas, just west of the Louisiana border, waters rose so fast that residents fled to their attics and rooftops to escape, and city officials scrambled to use trucks and other heavy vehicles to carry them to safety.
Wayne Garsee, 65, a retired electrician who lives outside Orange, said he and most of his neighbors fled late last month when Hurricane Gustav was on the way.
“That was a whole lot of nothing,“ Garsee said.
As a result, he said, “We didn’t think Ike would affect us. By the time we figured out it was coming toward us, it was really late.”
Garsee fled to a neighbor’s farm outside town. He returned to a town that’s still several feet underwater and a downtown that requires a boat to navigate most streets.
Garsee drove across the border to Louisiana to fill up, get fuel for his generator and food for himself and his dog, Freckles.
“I burned some gas getting there and getting back, but at least I have some now,” Garsee said.