GALVESTON, Texas – Rats, raw sewage and a no-excuses curfew await exiled residents who try to return to storm-wrecked Galveston Island when it reopens next week, officials warned Saturday, a week after Hurricane Ike came thundering ashore.
Ugly as the city's last week and immediate future may be, the grim predictions didn't seem to scare some of the 45,000 evacuated islanders from trying to get home, even though most of the island won't open back up until Wednesday.
Another miles-long traffic jam clogged the only highway into the city Saturday. Some ignored orders to turn around, while others resorted to deception to sneak past police guarding a roadblock.
David Culpepper met his brother Joe in Atlanta, put a phony magnetic sign on a truck to masquerade as contractors and drove down to help a third brother, Michael, who owns an antiques shop on Galveston.
Guards at the checkpoint waved Joe and David Culpepper right in.
"Not getting on this island was not an option," David Culpepper said. "We have a brother in need."
It could be weeks or more before basic services are restored in all areas. Authorities cautioned that residents could find drastically different conditions depending on how their property fared.
"We have people whose homes are totally and completely destroyed, all the way to the other end of the spectrum, to where your home is perfectly fine," city manager Steve LeBlanc said.
Fuel and other essentials remained scarce. Some businesses were beginning to reopen, cell service was improving and electricity was coming back on.
But the strides are small, and island leaders emphasized that Galveston remained dangerous. Police will indefinitely enforce a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew once the island reopens, and parents were warned their children could be exposed to infections from storm debris and other hazards.
Planes continued spraying the island to control mosquitoes, and officials urged those returning to wear masks to protect from mold and to properly dispose of spoiled food to stave off vermin.
"We don't want that flowing out into the streets," LeBlanc said. "We don't want varmints getting into it."
Hundreds of stop signs were being trucked in to replace traffic lights, nearly all of which were blown away, and 150 state troopers were on their way to help police the city.
State Rep. Craig Eiland called the preparations essential for controlling the "chaos and congestion" expected as residents come home.
"We will have order in the city," LeBlanc said.
The increased activity was welcome news to evacuees, but less so to at least some of the roughly 15,000 who rode out the Category 2 storm on the island.
"To be honest, I have been comfortable these past nine days without noise, without stupid sirens," 61-year-old Leonid Elokhine said as he walked home from trying to find supplies to fix his flooded car.
Grim reminders of the storm's force accompanied the bits of good news. Cadaver dogs were to sniff through rubble and debris Sunday in Bolivar Peninsula, which suffered even heavier damage that Galveston.
Residents of Bolivar Peninsula will also start seeing their homes next week, albeit for only a quick peek. Because the main road is impassible in many spots, residents will be loaded into dump trucks and other heavy vehicles for their tour.
Authorities had blamed the storm for 26 deaths in Texas and 61 total in the U.S., including a utility contractor from Florida who was electrocuted Friday while trying to restore power in Louisville, Ky.
Power had been restored Saturday to more than half the customers in Texas whose electricity was cut by Ike, though state officials said about 1.2 million remained in the dark Saturday. Oncor, one of the state's largest utilities, said Saturday night it had restored power to all 108,000 of its customers in east Texas who lost power from the storm.
"If there's one word that describes recovery, it's power," Gov. Rick Perry said.
In Beaumont, near the Louisiana line, authorities lifted a mandatory evacuation order Saturday that had been in effect since Sept. 11, clearing residents to return to the city of 110,000 for the first time in more than a week.
But thousands bused out of the city before Ike won't be coming back right away. Half of Beaumont is still without power, and with city water utilities and sewage running on generators, officials said they may not be ready for everyone to return.
More than 1 million people evacuated the Texas coast as Ike steamed across the Gulf of Mexico. State officials said more than half of some 37,000 evacuees in shelters at the height of Ike's aftermath were gone as of Saturday, and about 175 shelters remained open.
More than 439,000 families had registered for FEMA assistance in the wake of Ike as of Saturday, and about 9,300 were staying in government-funded hotel rooms.