Along Texas Coast, 'Monumental' Damage

By Keith B. Richburg, Joel Achenbach and Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 15, 2008

HOUSTON, Sept. 14 -- The devastated Texas Gulf Coast began Sunday to assess the scope of the impact of Hurricane Ike, finding that the massive storm washed away homes and knocked out power to millions, but did not cause the catastrophic loss of life that federal and state authorities had feared.

The damage from the 600-mile-wide hurricane was extensive, with flooding and debris spread from Freeport to Port Arthur. Nearly 2,000 people were rescued from flooded homes and elsewhere in the Galveston area, and more than 2 million remained without power statewide.

Yet the number of deaths from the hurricane's driving rains and 100 mph winds was reported to be 11 -- seven people in Texas and four in Louisiana -- even though thousands ignored orders to evacuate. By late Sunday, there were reports of 10 additional deaths in other states as the storm moved north. Federal officials said there were no reports of major damage to the region's critical oil, gas and petrochemical installations.

"Hurricane Ike threw us a hard punch, but it did not dent our spirit," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said as he urged the more than 1 million people who did evacuate to stay away for another week. While Perry said the damage was "monumental," he stressed that the state would recover.

Although most of Houston's energy businesses announced plans to remain closed Monday, the city's two commercial airports planned to reopen Monday to limited passenger service.

In Washington, President Bush said he will visit Texas on Tuesday to assess recovery efforts and lend support. "This is a tough storm, and it's one that's going to require time for people to recover," the president said after being briefed on the storm.

Bush said his top priorities are restoring electricity, clearing debris and getting the Houston sewage plant running again, and he vowed to ensure that gas stations are not gouging customers. About 2.2 million residences and businesses remained without power Sunday, along with 161,000 customers in Louisiana and about 154,000 in Arkansas.

A nighttime curfew was imposed in Houston through Saturday by officials concerned about looting. Thirty people had been arrested for looting by Sunday evening, local media reported.

Authorities had restored electricity to about 600,000 customers, but frustration was building among some residents and local officials about what they considered a slow governmental response. Callers to Houston radio stations were frantically asking where to find ice, a desperately needed commodity in a sweltering city without electricity for air conditioning.

The Category 2 hurricane roared ashore early Saturday and plowed across eastern Texas before being downgraded 11 hours later to a tropical storm. While authorities feared that Ike could inundate 100,000 homes and cause widespread fatalities, the storm veered north at the last minute and spared the Houston-Galveston area from worse destruction. It also did not strengthen.

Still, scenes of devastation belied the number of fatalities, though authorities were still conducting house-to-house searches late Sunday. Along Bolivar Peninsula, on the east side of Galveston Bay, acres of what had once been beachfront houses were washed away, with only the stilts that had supported them remaining.

A Washington Post photographer flying with the U.S. Coast Guard saw vehicles halfway submerged in sand and only three people on a long stretch of beach, including a woman sitting with her dog next to one of the few houses that remained.

Half of the homes in Chambers County, east of Houston, were severely damaged, a local television station reported, while Galveston Island took a "horrendous" pummeling from Ike, Galveston City Manager Steve LeBlanc said.

Among the few signs of life greeting rescuers on the west end of the island, LeBlanc said, were cows that had scrambled in some cases onto house decks. "They must have swum around all night," he said.

Authorities remained concerned about people who chose not to evacuate. Among them was Matthew Bartlett, assistant fitness instructor at the Galveston Health and Racket Club, who stayed in his second-floor apartment because of his experience fleeing Hurricane Rita in 2005.

"I didn't want to go through that again," Bartlett said.

His apartment came within five feet of being inundated. "It was close," said Bartlett, who was interviewed about 10 miles from Galveston, where he had gone to get supplies. He was not allowed back home.

Coupled with the devastation was frustration over logistical problems that slowed the movement of food, water, generators and other critical supplies from Federal Emergency Management Agency staging areas to local distributors.

"We expect FEMA to deliver these supplies, and we will hold them accountable," Houston Mayor Bill White said at a televised news conference.

FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison forcefully rebutted the criticism, saying the agency had sent 5 million pre-packaged meals and 3 million bottles of water to Texas, with 7 million more meals on the way.

"We have not been slow to deliver anything," said Paulison. Texas officials, he said, were responsible for coordinating distribution of the supplies to residents.

White said Sunday morning that Houston was planning to set up 40 distribution points for ice. But those plans foundered because of flooded or blocked roads and fears that residents would put themselves in danger by venturing outside. By late afternoon, no one seemed able to locate a city ice truck.

Another precious commodity was gasoline. People lined up, many with plastic canisters, filling up at the few open stations. But most gas stations remained closed.

Becky Little, who runs a real estate agency in Galveston, questioned why local and federal authorities haven't distributed vouchers for displaced residents who can no longer pay for hotels.

"They have no money. No food. They're coming in for bread, anything. Diapers. Tylenol for kids," Little said at the foot of a bridge 10 miles from Galveston, where police were stopping drivers trying to go home.

Many evacuees were taken to an enormous warehouse on Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. At the largest shelter for those who fled the storm, about 3,000 people were trying to adjust to the concrete floors and cots just arms-length away from each other. By late afternoon, workers had set up an additional 1,500 cots.

"They're really hustling," said Kate Conradt, of the Washington-based organization Save the Children. "It's a very organized madhouse here."

Achenbach reported from Galveston and Markon from Washington. Staff writers Spencer S. Hsu and Carol Leonnig in Washington and staff photographer Jahi Chikwendiu over the Bolivar Peninsula contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company