HOUSTON – Galveston city officials announced Tuesday that they will permit residents to return temporarily to the island to inspect their homes for the first time since Hurricane Ike plowed into the area last week.
The “look-and-leave” policy will allow homeowners to check on their property between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. They then must leave or face a $2,000 fine.
City leaders had sought a compromise for residents clamoring to return to an island officials say is not currently safe to inhabit.
“I’m sorry I can’t say, ‘Come on home and stay here.’ … It’s the best we can do right now. Our city is damaged,” Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said.
On nearby Bolivar Peninsula, officials made no similar offer and pleaded with the estimated 350 people who rode out the storm there to leave. County officials said they may impose martial law to force them off the peninsula, where, adding to the chaos, a tiger is on the loose.
The death toll on Galveston Island remains at five, and an estimated 15,000 residents have refused to leave. Even with the announcement that residents could visit their homes, city officials continued to try to convince those who remained through the hurricane to leave now, saying the lack of safe water, electricity and sewage service makes the risk of disease high.
Texas Health Commissioner Dr. David Lakey said residents who stay face potential health problems and the risk of infectious diseases. Little medical care is available, he said.
Also Tuesday, President Bush visited southeast Texas, touring the area by helicopter and observing an emergency operations center in Galveston.
As the president prepared to tour the area by air, he told residents the federal government would aid them in their time of need.
“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,” Bush told reporters.
As word spread that city officials were allowing Galveston residents to return to “look-and-leave,” traffic on southbound Interstate 45 backed up for more than 10 miles. Drivers impatiently inched forward in stop-and-go traffic, easing around utility trucks and yelling at those trying to sneak forward along the emergency lane.
Thousands of people are still in shelters – many in the Austin and San Antonio areas – and have no idea what they will return to or when they will be able to get home.
Others expected to spend much of this week waiting in line for water, ice and food. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said Tuesday morning that the agency had already handed out 1.5 million MREs (meals ready to eat) and 1.6 million pounds of ice.