Monday, September 15, 2008

And Then There's Galveston and Houston


Two days after Hurricane Ike battered Galveston and then roared into Houston 50 miles to the north, roads here were still buried in sand and debris even as floodwaters began to recede. Many streets were still blocked with debris and fallen trees. There was no electricity, running water, sewage or telephone service.

The air reeked of fuel and saltwater and was heavy with humidity and mosquitoes. Local officials worried about the possible spread of disease as thousands of residents who survived the storm tried to live in damaged homes without proper sanitary facilities.

All traffic was squeezed to one lane on most roads. Many roads were entirely or partially blocked by chunks of roofs, parts of sailboat hulls and heaps of sodden coastal grasses ripped out by their roots.

Sailboats and a shrimp boat lay in twisted heaps, scattered over the shoreline by Ike's 110-mph winds and 15-foot storm surge. Crushed house frames creaked in the morning breeze, which carried the high whine of mosquitoes.

At Seawolf Park, a maritime museum, one ship was thrown completely out of the water by the storm. It was listing on a massive pile of debris from a smashed pier. A U.S. Navy submarine was moved onto land, half of its body covered in mud.

At the U.S. Coast Guard field office here, a reduced crew of 22 rode out the hurricane at sea aboard the Coast Guard cutter Harry Claiborne. When they returned to the island, they found the base littered with the crushed remains of their family cars near their flooded homes. The vehicles were tossed along the side of a road -- bashed pickup trucks and SUVs twisted around chunks of concrete and lumber.

"One guy has a shrimp boat in his front yard," said Chief Petty Officer Chris Boss, who was aboard the cutter during the storm. "A lot of the guys who have been out on rescues, or are working elsewhere right now, don't know they're coming back to their car gone, their home flooded."

In the Gulf of Mexico off Galveston, a Coast Guard cutter worked to reopen the port here while also patrolling the channel to assess damage and search for buoys dragged up to eight miles out to sea. Coast Guard officials said 90% of the navigational aids used to guide ships through the channel had been destroyed or damaged.

The water is littered with debris -- car upholstery, toilet seats and cow carcasses. With many people on the island still unaccounted for, crew members kept a lookout for human remains.

Search and rescue teams are looking for survivors on the west end of Galveston Island, the area hit hardest by Ike. Roads leading into the west end are buried in sand and debris, and the protective sea wall that runs down most of the gulf side of the island collapsed at the far west end. But local officials said the collapse did not compromise the structural integrity of the rest of the 17-foot high sea wall.

Galveston officials have estimated that up to 40% of the island's population of 57,000 stayed to face the storm despite a mandatory evacuation order. About 2,000 accepted an offer Sunday to take buses to shelters in San Antonio and Austin.

In Houston, local and federal emergency authorities began opening distribution centers for food, water and ice. They said they hoped to open about 17 points of distribution by day's end.

Each resident was to be given two packages of ready-to-eat meals, two boxes of bottled water and a bag of ice. The bulk of greater Houston's population of about 4 million stayed in their homes during the storm. Many are still without power as they deal with flooded homes and piles of debris. The city's downtown had been largely cleaned today of the broken glass and debris strewn over city streets since Ike made landfall. Some shops and restaurants are open, though on limited hours because of the curfew.
People have been expecting something like this for a while now, but it's still terrible.

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