GALVESTON – Hurricane Ike's death toll in the U.S. climbed past 50 on Wednesday and appeared to level off in Texas, where search teams pulled out of Galveston having searched the entire island for survivors.
A long convoy of rescue vehicles headed back to Houston past a miles-long line of cars trying to get back into coastal communities despite orders to stay out.
The backlog of traffic frustrated transportation officials, who pointed out that among those idling in the choked interstate were emergency crews and trucks hauling resources badly needed on the island.
"It's not a good scenario," said Raquelle Lewis, a Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman.
Lewis would not estimate the number of cars caught in the backlog, which extended miles past the first checkpoint that is 19 miles north of Galveston. Lewis pleaded with Galveston residents to not waste scarcely available fuel by trying to head home.
Much of the confusion stemmed from Galveston officials' short-lived decision to allow people onto the island Tuesday to examine their property briefly and head back out. Many along the interstate were unaware that the "look-and-leave" policy had been suspended.
Carlos Azucena, 47, said he had tried three different times in the last 24 hours to get on the island. He said he waited in line for three hours before his final rejection Wednesday.
"I don't understand this. You see those other people," Azucena said, waiving at utility workers and contractors being let on to the island. "They don't even live here, I live in Galveston."
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff returned to Texas for a second time to check on recovery efforts amid growing criticism about the Federal Emergency Management Agency's response.
In Houston, most people in the nation's fourth-largest city remained without power for a fifth day, making it tough to track the latest information on where to pick up supplies. For most, the electricity wasn't expected back on for at least another week.
Searchers in boats used sonar to sweep for debris clogging navigation routes into one of the nation's busiest ports.
The search and rescue teams of Texas Task Force 1 spent four days making door-to-door searches across the island for those who rode out the storm. Some of the people they found were evacuated while others chose to stay in their homes.
There were some cases where searchers were told that a resident had stayed on the peninsula for the hurricane, but had not been seen since.
In those instances, searchers checked the last place where the person was seen, then gave their names to local emergency managers for follow up, said Chuck Jones, a task force team leader. At times, information conflicted, with one neighbor saying a person had stayed for the storm and another saying they had evacuated before it hit.
Galveston County Medical Examiner Stephen Pustilnik said officials had confirmed the first death in nearby Brazoria County. Pustilnik also gave details on five deaths in Galveston County: Three had serious medical conditions prior to the storm but did not evacuate, one drowned in a truck and one was found in a hotel room.
Ike's death toll officially stood at 51, with most of the deaths coming outside of Texas. Authorities may never know if, or how many, people who tried to weather the storm were washed out to sea.
Residents again waited in line for hours Wednesday at the nearly two dozen supply distribution centers set up in Houston to hand out food, water and ice. Mayor Bill White complained FEMA wasn't bringing in the supplies fast enough, and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett had personally taken over coordination of efforts to hand out relief supplies.
FEMA officials in Houston said they were refining glitches in the relief effort and delivering millions of meals and water every 24 hours.
Spokesman Marty Bahamonde said FEMA will begin paying for 30 days of hotel expenses for homeowners whose houses are uninhabitable. FEMA plans to reimburse the hotels directly.