Galveston Urges Residents Not to Return in Aftermath of Ike

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The mayor of Galveston pleaded with residents not to return, saying the city's resources are "stretched to the max" by Hurricane Ike's devastation.

Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas, whose city was nearly wiped off the map 108 years ago by a hurricane and is now facing flooding, said a cruise ship will be sent to house those displaced by the storm as search and rescue operations continue.

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"Sometimes the aftermath of the storm is worse than the storm itself," Thomas said. City officials warned people to stay away from beaches because oil appeared to be floating on the water.

Galveston City Manager Steve LeBlanc said Monday that the city could no longer safely accommodate the population due to the lack of water, sewerage and gas services. He predicted it would take "days, weeks and months" to clean up the island.

"Quite frankly we are reaching a health crisis for the people who remain on the island," LeBlanc said. At least a third of the community's 60,000 residents remained in their homes.

"We want our citizens to stay where they are," Thomas said. "Do not come back to Galveston. You cannot live here at this time."

Michael Geml has braved other storms in his bay-front neighborhood in Galveston, where he's lived for 25 years, though none quite like Ike. The 51-year-old stayed in the third-story Jacuzzi of a neighbor's house, directly on the bay, with family pets as waves crashed across the landscape.

"I'll never stay again," Geml said. "I don't care what the weatherman says — a Category 1, a Category 2. I thought I was going to die."

More than 48 hours after Ike swamped the Gulf Coast, rescuers flew into a hard-to-reach area Monday and uncovered a swollen landscape: Hurricane Ike had swamped entire subdivisions, and emergency crews feared they would find more victims than survivors.

It was the first time anyone had gotten a look at the damaged resort barrier island of Bolivar Peninsula, just east of hard-hit Galveston. Homes were splintered or completely washed away in the beachfront community that is home to about 30,000 people in the peak summer season.

"They had a lot of devastation over there," task force leader Chuck Jones said. "It took a direct hit."

Jones did not have information on whether anyone had died on the island, mainly because leaders still don't know how many people stayed through the storm that struck early Saturday.

A line of at least 30 cars formed early Monday at a strip mall in Orange, a Texas town on the Louisiana state line east of Beaumont, a day after food and water were distributed there by the National Guard. But the line dispersed after state troopers told the gathering that supplies would be passed out elsewhere.

Wanda Hamor, 49, of Orange, was fifth in line with her 21-year-old son William. They were trapped in their house by floodwaters until Monday morning before they could venture out. They had run out of food Sunday night. They left for Hurricane Gustav on Labor Day and say they couldn't afford to leave for Ike or buy any more than $60 in food.

"He's diabetic and he has to eat four times a day," she said of her son.

Mary Shelton, 71, and her neighbor Letha Wilson, 78, sat in their sport utility vehicle waiting to get supplies at a distribution center in Houston. "We need some ice. What are going to drink? Hot water?" Shelton said.

Houston, littered with glass from skyscrapers, was placed under a weeklong curfew. While spots of downtown had power, trees still blocked streets and restaurants and businesses were closed. Planes were taking off and arriving at the airports again, but there were some delays, and the normally bustling highways were nearly vacant at rush hour.

Tensions were rising among more than 1,000 who had spent several nights at the city's George R. Brown Convention Center. They complained that they couldn't get information about how to get food and clean clothes. The city's mayor said only 1,300 people were inside, but those sleeping on cots said it felt like thousands.

Michael Stevenson, 37, had wandered from shelter to shelter since the storm struck before ending up at the convention center. At one shelter, he said, he barely ate.

"They give you a little cup of water every four hours. They feed us one peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We were in there for about 18 hours before we could go outside and get some air," he said.

Beginning cleanup was still a distant thought as rescue teams continued going door-to-door to look for survivors and bring them to shelters. Crews had no idea what they would find on Bolivar Peninsula, which from the air, revealed house after shattered house.

Of particular concern is a resident who collects exotic animals who is now holed up in a Baptist church with his pet lion. "We're not going in there," Jones said. "We know where he [the lion] is on the food chain."

Snapshots of damage were emerging everywhere: In Galveston, oil was coating the water and beaches with a sheen, and residents were ordered off the beach. Dozens of cement vaults popped up out of the water-swollen ground, many disgorging their coffins. Several came to rest against a chain link fence, choked with garbage and trinkets left behind by mourners.

George Levias shook his head when he discovered the graves of his mother-in-law and best friend open. He recognized the casket of co-worker Leonard Locks by its ceramic floral handles.

"I just don't know what to say," the 75-year-old Levias said as he walked gingerly among open graves filled with water. "Loved ones being disturbed like that."

Rescuers said they had saved nearly 2,000 people from waterlogged streets and splintered houses by Sunday afternoon. Many had ignored evacuation orders and tried to ride out the storm. Now they were boarding buses for indefinite stays at shelters in San Antonio and Austin.

There were still at least 37,000 evacuees seeking temporary shelter in the state's 284 facilities, officials said Monday.

Canned goods and thawing meat were helping Susie Griffin feed her husband, 24-year-old daughter and 2-year-old grandson in a home with no water. But the Orange resident didn't know how long that would last — she is running out, and was first in line to get food, water and ice from a National Guard supply station Sunday.

"Once it defrosts, you're in trouble," she said of the small amount of meat she has in her freezer. "I don't think anything is open. You have to go to Louisiana, but you've gotta have gas to go there."

Ike was downgraded to a tropical depression as it moved north. Roads were closed in Kentucky because of high winds. As far north as Chicago, dozens of people in a suburb had to be evacuated by boat. Two million people were without power in Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana.

Of the 30 dead, five were in Galveston, including one body found in a vehicle submerged in floodwater at the airport. There were two other deaths in Texas and six in Louisiana, including a 16-year-old boy trapped in rising floodwaters. Several were farther inland.

Two golfers died when a tree fell on them in Tennessee. There were six deaths in Indiana; three died in Missouri. One person died in Arkansas and three in Ohio, including two motorcyclists killed when a tree toppled on them at a state park. But the toll still paled in comparison to what Ike did elsewhere before arriving: The storm claimed more than 80 lives in the Caribbean before reaching Texas.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.