WASHINGTON – President Bush declared a major disaster in Texas Saturday, ordering federal aid to the Gulf region as rescue teams began to search for stranded victims of Hurricane Ike.
Federal officials said rescue teams were prepared and moving quickly to assist the tens of thousands of people who did not evacuate before Ike, which has since been downgraded to a tropical storm, slammed eastern Texas and Louisiana.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the disaster declaration for 29 counties in Texas means they will get assistance with debris removal — aid to the region may also include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, unemployment pay, and low-interest loans to cover uninsured property losses, according to the White House.
Federal officials say they are confident in the system they put together after Hurricane Katrina to enhance coordination between federal and local agencies. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had pre-staged 1,000 rescue crews, as well as 230 generators and 5.5 million pre-packaged meals.
Chertoff, who said there were initial reports of a "few deaths," said 50 helicopters, from the National Guard, Coast Guard and Department of Defense, were in the air scanning for victims who need to be airlifted.
Chertoff and David Paulison, head of FEMA, said the first priority is search and rescue.
“This is still a dangerous storm," Chertoff said, urging residents in the affected areas to stay at home. "The most dangerous period of a storm is often what occurs after the storm has moved on."
Chertoff was heading to Texas Saturday afternoon, and is expected to stay in the Gulf region at least through Sunday. He said 2.2 million residents had evacuated Texas, and more than 130,000 had fled Louisiana.
The president described the storm Saturday morning as "huge" after holding a video conference with Chertoff and Paulison.
"Obviously, this is a huge storm that is causing a lot of damage," Bush said.
Ike ravaged southeast Texas early Saturday, battering the coast with driving rain and high wind. Thousands of homes and government buildings are flooded, roads are washed out, nearly 3 million people lost power and several fires burned.
Authorities in four counties alone said roughly 140,000 ignored mandatory evacuation orders and stayed behind. Other counties were unable to provide numbers but officials said they were concerned that many decided to brave deadly conditions rather than flee.
Paulison expressed frustration that so many stayed behind despite the warnings, but said rescue teams can handle the job.
"We wanted people out of there," Paulison told FOX News."Now we not only have to rescue them and put themselves and their families at risk. We’re going to have to put rescuers at risk also.
“We’ve got plenty of helicopters out there, we’ve got a lot of rescue teams on the ground. So regardless of the number (of stranded residents) we should be able to get them out of there," he said.
Bush also said state authorities are monitoring gasoline prices to make sure residents are not being "gouged."
Wholesale gas prices soared on Friday, reaching around $4.85 on the Gulf Coast amid fears that there will be vast fuel shortages as the hurricane bore down on refineries lining the upper Texas coast. The region accounts for about one-fifth of the nation's petroleum refining capacity.
The price spike is expected to result in higher prices at gas pumps across broad swaths of the nation as the gasoline makes it way from the wholesale market to retailers.
Homeland Security spokeswoman Laura Keehner said Chertoff will fly into Austin, Texas, where he will monitor the response and ensure resources are being efficiently allocated. Though Chertoff traveled to Louisiana ahead of Hurricane Gustav making landfall, she said this time “they assessed that the best way for him to help” was to wait to travel until after Hurricane Ike passed.
FOX News' Julie Kirtz and The Associated Press contributed to this report.