GALVESTON, Texas – It's been nearly a week since Hurricane Ike bulled ashore, and the images of once-bustling coastal Texas communities reduced to only a faint shadow of their old selves are no less staggering.
Survivors traipsing past debris piled higher than their heads. Loose livestock grazing beneath downed power lines. Before-and-after shots of whole neighborhoods washed away. Scores of people taking on the drudgery of making it all livable again for weary and anxious evacuees still waiting to come home.
"The city of Galveston is not in ruins," Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said Thursday, striking a defiant tone.
Then she ceded the podium to city manager Steve LeBlanc, who said Galveston basically is on life support.
There's some power to the only hospital, but not enough. Cell phone service is improving, which helps repair crews coordinate, but coverage is still spotty. More water is flowing out of the city's pipes than is flowing in.
"Our water system is bleeding," LeBlanc said.
At the very least, the barrier island community isn't ready for the return of the 45,000 who heeded orders to flee, about three-fourths of the population. Officials pleaded with evacuees to sit tight to give workers time to stabilize basic services.
"By staying away and being patient, you are making it possible for us to get you home in a week or so, instead of the months it would take if the city's infrastructure were more overwhelmed at this point," Thomas said.
Galveston Island remained closed, as did the worse-off Bolivar Peninsula. Search teams pulled out of both areas this week after sweeping every house, authorities said.
To the northwest, life took more steps toward normalcy in Houston, where traffic picked up on the downtown streets. Flight control of the International Space Station was to return Friday to the Johnson Space Center, which shut down a few days before Ike's strike.
CenterPoint Energy said it had restored power to nearly 900,000 homes, and the utility was fast approaching the point where more people in the nation's fourth-largest city would be with electricity than without. About 1.5 million are still without power statewide.
More than 1 million people evacuated the Texas coast as Ike steamed across the Gulf of Mexico. Gov. Rick Perry said 22,000 people were still living in more than 200 shelters. Ike's death toll in the U.S. stood at 56, with 22 in Texas, though authorities cautioned that more victims could be found.
The Interior Department said Thursday that Ike destroyed at least 49 of the more than 3,800 offshore oil or natural gas production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, and some may not be rebuilt. The damaged platforms accounted for tiny percentages of the Gulf's daily output of oil and natural gas.
The federal relief effort has delivered hundreds of trucks of ice, water and food to more than 5 million people in the region. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it had handed out 2.5 million liters of water, 2 million meals and 100,000 tarps.
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 six days ago, 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.
Back on the mainland, the Red Cross began to close some shelters outside the greater Houston area, though it was still accepting evacuees closer to the most damaged spots, said Jana Sweeney, a spokeswoman for the agency.
"People will come home and realize that their home is not livable, and check back into the shelters," she said.
That's what happened to Virginia Collins, a nurse's assistant who left her home in Houston to stay with family in Denton during the storm. When the coast was clear, she went home to find her ceiling caved in, insulation spilling from the walls and black mold spreading around the house — a place she moved after Hurricane Rita destroyed her Port Arthur home three years ago.
With her Houston home uninhabitable, she was at the city's convention center looking for shelter Thursday.
"I was OK until I got back here," Collins said.