GALVESTON, Texas – Authorities laid out a plan Friday — a week after Hurricane Ike began lashing the Texas coast with 110-mph winds and relentless storm surge — to let about 45,000 anxious evacuees back onto Galveston Island for good.
It will be another week before that happens, however, as crews were only beginning to get basic services restored on the crippled barrier island.
A lone pump was back on at a gas station about two blocks behind the Galveston seawall Friday. Cell phone service was mostly restored and power was gradually coming back on.
Residents will be allowed to return in phases, starting from the least damaged areas, primarily behind the seawall on the east side of the island, then gradually out to the heavily damaged west end, city manager Steve LeBlanc said.
About 90 people a day were being treated for minor injuries at the University of Texas Medical Branch, but the island's only hospital was still days or weeks away from admitting people. About 14 people a day with more serious injuries had been sent by ambulance or helicopter to hospitals on the mainland, and health officials cautioned that the island was still vulnerable to disease.
"If our residents are injured severely, we just don't have a good capacity to care for them today," hospital president David Callendar said. "It will really be some time before Galveston is what I would say, in my own words, a healthy enough place to sustain a population."
Another obstacle to reopening the island is its crippled water system. More water is flowing out of the city's pipes than is flowing in.
Authorities have long since finished searching for bodies on Galveston Island and the worse-off Bolivar Peninsula, though they cautioned more could be found. Authorities had blamed 57 deaths in the U.S. on Ike, 23 of them in Texas.
County Judge Jim Yarbrough, the county's highest elected official, said 60 state troopers were patrolling the heavily damaged peninsula.
"That additional security would at least give some comfort to people who are worried about looters," he said.
While an evacuation order is still in effect for about 80 percent of Bolivar Peninsula, Yarbrough backed off his vow earlier this week to forcefully remove residents if necessary to clear the way for repair teams. So many people already left on their own — only about 35 remain — and with better access to the peninsula officials are able to get those people the food, water and supplies they need.
Authorities plan to allow residents back to the peninsula next week to examine their property. Because the main road is impassible in many spots, they'll load people up in dump trucks and other heavy vehicles.
State Rep. Craig Eiland, who represents Galveston, said officials are trying to gather the thousands of cattle that have been roaming free since the storm surge receded. The water that remains is so salty it could kill animals that drink it, and the grass they would normally eat likewise has been tainted, he said.
About 1.4 million customers remained without power statewide, including about half of the Houston area. The power was back on for about 1 million customers in the metro region, however, and life looked increasingly normal in the nation's fourth-largest city. More stores were open, and police reopened downtown streets that they had blocked off after the storm blew out skyscraper windows.
NASA said Friday that flight control of the International Space Station was returning to the Johnson Space Center, which shut down a few days before Ike's strike but did not sustain significant damage.
More than 1 million people evacuated the Texas coast as Ike steamed across the Gulf of Mexico. Gov. Rick Perry said 20,500 people were still staying in 190 shelters Friday. About 135,500 families had qualified for government-funded hotels, though less than 9,000 were checked in, said Richard Scorza, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The federal relief effort has delivered hundreds of trucks of ice, water and food to more than 5 million people in the region.
Among those accepting a hand was Cheryl Harwell, who holed up in an empty hotel as Ike devastated the Bolivar Peninsula community of Crystal Beach. She ignored a mandatory evacuation order last week and suggested she wouldn't be leaving anytime soon.
"I got everything I need here," said Harwell, 50, as she sat on the hotel's second-floor balcony with her husband and a friend.
Destruction surrounded them, but their second-floor abode was dry and tidy, complete with clean linen, bottled water and beer.
"We're happy here," said Harwell's husband, Armando Briones. "We've got plenty of cigarettes and plenty of food."
If they need something, they simply flag down the National Guard, which has been making daily checks.