A Race Against Time For Stranded Texans

Dolores Gabrilles, 71, is lifted by rescuers into a boat after her home was flooded by Hurricane Ike in the West End section of Galveston, Texas, Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
AP Photo/L.M. Otero
Rescue crews canvassed neighborhoods inundated by Hurricane Ike's storm surge early Sunday morning, racing against time to save those who spent a second harrowing night trapped amid flattened houses, strewn debris and downed power lines.

One team of paramedics, rescue dogs and structural engineers fanned out under a nearly full moon on a finger of land in Galveston Bay. Authorities hoped to spare thousands of Texans - 140,000 by some estimates who ignored orders to flee ahead of Ike - from another night among the destruction. Some had been rescued, but unknown thousands remained stranded.

Only four deaths had been blamed on Ike so far: two in Texas and two in Louisiana.

Along the southeast Texas coast Sunday, the weather was not cooperating. Thunderstorms dropped more rain on areas already flooded by Ike.

In Houston, the fourth-largest U.S. city, a weeklong curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. was announced because most of the city was still without power.

"In the interest of safety, we're asking people to not be out in the streets in their vehicles or on foot," Chief Harold Hurtt said.

President George W. Bush planned to travel to Texas on Tuesday to express sympathy and lend support to the storm's victims. He asked people who evacuated before the hurricane to listen to local authorities before trying to return home.

Roads blocked by waist-deep water and downed trees kept many rescuers at bay as they struggled through the largest search-and-rescue effort in state history, just a day after the Category 2 storm crashed into Texas with 110 mph winds.

On one side of the Galveston peninsula, a couple of barges had broken loose and smashed into homes. Everything from red vinyl barstools to clay roof tiles littered the landscape. Some homes were "pancaked," the second floor sitting where the first had been before Ike's surge washed it out. Only the stud frames remained below the roofs of many houses, opening a clear view from front yard to back.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry's office said 940 people had been saved by nightfall Saturday, but that thousands had made distress calls the night before. Another 600 were rescued from flooding in neighboring Louisiana.

"What's really frustrating is that we can't get to them," Galveston police officer Tommie Mafrei said. "It's jeopardizing our safety when we try to tell them eight hours before to leave. They are naive about it, thinking it's not going to be that bad."

Big-wheeled dump trucks, boats and helicopters were at the ready to continue searching hard-hit Galveston and Orange County at daybreak Sunday.

Orange Mayor Brown Claybar estimated about a third of the city of 19,000 people was flooded, anywhere from six inches to six feet. He said about 375 people who stayed behind during the storm began to emerge, some needing food, water and medical care.

"These people got out with the wet shirts on their back," said Claybar, who had no idea of how many people were still stranded. Claybar was optimistic that the foot-and-a-half of water over the levee had receded overnight. If so, the city could begin pumping the water out, Claybar said. He did not know exactly how long it would take to drain the city.

"I would say at least a couple of days," Claybar said.

Some coastal residents waded through chest-deep water with their belongings and children in their arms to get to safety Saturday. Military helicopters loaded others carrying plastic bags and pets in their arms and brought them to dry ground.

Five-year-old Jack King escaped serious injury when the storm surge sent a rush of water that washed out the first floor of his family's Galveston home just two blocks from the bay.

"I falled in the attic," Jack told paramedic Stanley Hempstead of his 10-foot tumble through the attic and onto the garage floor. Jack and his family had taken refuge in the room, loaded with blankets and other supplies. As rescuers arrived, Jack gazed at a TV aglow with "The Simpsons." The only evidence of his fall was a Band-Aid plastered to his closely-cropped hair, covering a gash.

"We just didn't think it was going to come up like this," said the boy's father, Lee King. "I'm from New Orleans, I know better. I just didn't think it was going to happen."

The Kings had hoped that a family member would pick them up, but a paramedic told him the road inland would not be open for days. Lee King thought they could survive another night, but then their generator died. He ultimately decided the family was ready to leave.

Hempstead and other team members sailed through flooded streets Saturday, evoking thoughts of another disastrous storm that kept him working for 31 days three years ago.

"This brings back memories of Katrina - a lot of torn up homes and flooded stuff," he said of the hurricane that struck New Orleans three years ago.

In downtown Houston, winds shattered the windows of gleaming skyscrapers, sleeting glass onto the streets below. Police used bullhorns to order people back into their homes. Furniture littered the streets, and business documents stamped "classified" had been carried by the wind through shattered office windows.

The storm weakened to a tropical depression early Sunday morning, but was still packing winds up to 35 mph as it dumped rain over Arkansas and traveled across Missouri. Tornado warning sirens sounded Saturday in parts of Arkansas, and the still-potent storm downed trees and knocked out power to thousands there.

Ike was the first major storm to directly hit a major U.S. metropolitan area since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005.

More than 3 million were without power in Texas at the height of the storm, and it could be weeks before it is fully restored. Utilities made some progress by late Saturday, and lights returned to parts of Houston. In Louisiana, battered by both Ike and Hurricane Gustav on Sept. 1, 180,000 homes and businesses were without power.

Storm surge that crawled some 30 miles inland in Louisiana flooded tens of thousands of homes. A levee broke and some 13,000 buildings flooded in Terrebonne Parish, 200 miles from Texas. More than 160 people had to be saved from floodwaters near Lake Charles.

Though emergency crews were frustrated by those who stayed behind, weary residents of East Texas's swamplands and Big Piney Woods were beginning to feel that whatever decision they make about a Gulf hurricane is wrong.

In 2005, they were battered by Hurricane Rita, a September storm that ripped pine trees from their roots, smashed trailer- and wood-frame homes and left them in what has become a perpetual state of disrepair.

Last week, they listened when authorities told them to get out of Gustav's way. They spent days in north Texas shelters or paid for hotels and gas while their homes received nothing more than a mild shower. So when Ike approached, thousands ignored the mandatory evacuation order.

Bush To Visit Disaster Scene Tuesday

President Bush said Sunday he will visit Texas on Tuesday to express sympathy for victims of Hurricane Ike and lend support for recovery efforts.

"This is a tough storm and it's one that's going to require time for people to recover," the president said from the White House's Roosevelt Room after receiving an update from his disaster relief chief, the energy secretary and others.

Ike came ashore early Saturday at Galveston, Texas, as a strong Category 2 with 110 mph winds.

"Our first priority is search and rescue," Mr. Bush told reporters. He also mentioned restoring electricity, clearing debris and getting the Houston sewage plant running again.

He urged residents who had evacuated ahead of the storm to heed warnings from local authorities before trying to return home.

"It's very important for citizens, who I know are anxious to get home, to take your time and listen, take the advice of the local folks," the president said.

On his trip to Texas, Mr. Bush said he intends to express "the federal government's support - sympathy on the one hand and support on the other."

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff updated Mr. Bush by phone from Texas. Chertoff, who went to the region on Saturday, was in Austin, Texas, and planned to head to Houston later.

"This is all part of our efforts to help Texas and Louisiana with a focused, effective recovery effort," Mr. Bush said.

The eye of the hurricane missed the center of Houston, as well as the largest concentrations of oil and gas refineries. Still, retail gasoline prices have jumped based on Ike's landfall in the region, which accounts for about one-fifth of the nation's petroleum refining capacity. Refineries, even if they were not damaged, may remain shuttered for days, some because of power outages.

"The federal government, along with state governments, will be monitoring very carefully as to whether or not consumers are being mistreated at the pump - in other words, gouged," Mr. Bush said. "It's very important for our fellow citizens during this period of temporary disruption to be treated fairly."

Mr. Bush said the federal government is providing 1.5 million liters of water a day and 1 million meals a day to help the displaced.