GALVESTON, Texas – The barrier island community of Galveston just "isn't ready" for residents to return even briefly to the city thrashed by Hurricane Ike, officials said Thursday as they pleaded for at least another week to make repairs.
"By staying away and being patient, you are making it possible for us to get you home in a week or so, instead of the months it would take if the city's infrastructure were more overwhelmed at this point," Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said.
Many of the city's services — including water, sewer and power — are recovering but remain several days away from returning to full function, City Manager Steve LeBlanc said. The only hospital on the island is getting some power, but not enough to care for the 60,000 residents of Galveston Island.
The extra strain placed on the city by the return of residents would only slow the recovery effort, LeBlanc said.
"We don't have adequate water at this point for just taking a shower, flushing a toilet," he said. "We're not there yet."
Authorities let residents and business owners back onto the island briefly Tuesday to "look and leave," but quickly reversed course after the decision created traffic jams that backed up for miles Tuesday and Wednesday on Interstate 45, the only road onto the island.
Officials ruled out a resumption of that policy Thursday.
"It's more confusing," the mayor said. "We just want to bring everyone home, and we'll try to do it next week."
Roughly 15,000 residents defied forecasters' warning of "certain death" to ride out the storm on the barrier island, and many remained there despite the repeated urgings of officials — worried about threats that include mosquito-borne disease — to get out.
There are clear signs of life returning to Galveston. Cell phone service had largely returned, and for the second day since the storm hit, a Kroger store on Seawall Boulevard was open. The scene was almost festive, as workers grilled fajitas for employees who had removed enough spoiled food to fill 16 dump trucks. No meat or dairy products were available, but most other items were.
Galveston Police Chief Charles Wiley said since Ike hit, authorities have seen only 11 cases of looting — a rate he called "phenomenally low."
"It's really some young people who've probably been left on the island or been located on the island and have very little to do," he said.
Ike's death toll in the U.S. stood at 56, with 22 in Texas. A utility worker clearing downed lines in north of Houston was crushed by a falling tree Wednesday, the Montgomery County sheriff's office said.
There are fears there are more victims yet to be found. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, bodies continued to turn up for more than a year.
"It's very much unknown," said Galveston County Medical Examiner Stephen Pustilnik. "There are large parts of the county that haven't been searched. Just like in Katrina and Rita, debris has to be sifted through."
To the northwest in Houston, traffic on the downtown streets of the nation's fourth-largest city picked up Thursday, nearly a week after the massive Category 2 storm plowed ashore on Galveston Island. CenterPoint Energy said it had restored power to nearly 900,000 homes, approaching the point where more people in Houston would be with electricity than without.
"If I could make a wish for a single magic bullet to move us forward, it would be to get the power lines fixed," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said.
Chertoff was in Southeast Texas for the second straight day, watching over the federal relief effort that has delivered hundreds of trucks of ice, water and food to the region's more than 5 million people.
To help ease the recovery, federal officials urged private lenders Thursday to cut some slack to financially strapped homeowners after earlier issuing a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures. About 7,000 homeowners with FHA loans in Ike-damaged areas were in foreclosure or on the cusp, HUD said.
"A lot of times, after a disaster, people come back, they have expenses they didn't count on," Housing and Urban Development Secretary Steve Preston said as he stood alongside Chertoff. "We want to make sure they have breathing room before they have to worry about mortgages (that) will become an additional challenge for them."
Flight control of the International Space Station was to return to the Johnson Space Center on Friday, NASA said Thursday. The space center shut down a few days before Ike's strike.
Officials said the home of Mission Control incurred only minimal damage from the storm. While the space flight center was closed, the duties had been passed temporarily to backup facilities near Austin and in Huntsville, Ala.