Hot and Mad, Texas Awaits Federal Aid

Crews rescue 2,000 victims but gas, food, water scarce in Houston




September 15, 2008
By Erika Slife and Howard Witt
Chicago Tribune

HOUSTON - The nation's fourth-largest city lay paralyzed, sweltering and almost completely blacked-out yesterday as frustrated residents waited in vain for promised federal disaster aid to be distributed more than 36 hours after Hurricane Ike tore through the region. Worried authorities extended a dusk-to-dawn curfew to prevent looting across the eerily darkened city.

Photo: The awning of a Texaco station is damaged on Barker Cypress, just north of I-10. (Elly N. Jones)

Meanwhile, rescue teams fanned out through flooded neighborhoods of Galveston Island, the hard-hit coastal community south of Houston where Ike made landfall, pulling nearly 2,000 victims to safety. Miraculously, Galveston officials said they had discovered only three bodies. Hundreds of other stranded Ike victims were rescued in devastated communities farther east along the Gulf Coast.

The official death toll from the Category 2 hurricane stood at 12, but authorities cautioned that that the count could rise as search teams made their way deeper into devastated neighborhoods along the Texas and Louisiana coasts.

As frustrated Houston residents began searching for scarce supplies of gasoline, food and clean water, Gov. Rick Perry and Mayor Bill White pointedly questioned whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency was devoting enough resources to deliver supplies to the region and help restore power to nearly 5 million area consumers.

Officials of the three private utility companies that supply electricity to the Houston metropolitan region said it could take them a month to restore power to everyone - a potentially debilitating delay to the area's economy, which supplies energy, aerospace and medical services to the nation.

"The future of America depends on a state like Texas and a city like Houston to get back on its feet as soon as it can," Perry, a Republican, told a news conference in Galveston. "That is the reason we are going to be adamant in our requests for [federal] help to get the power back on."

White, a Democrat, asked FEMA officials why they had not begun to deliver vital food, water and ice supplies to 24 pre-established distribution points throughout the city, considering that the loaded trucks had been positioned in advance of the storm in cities a few hundred miles away.

Photo: A home in west Houston is damaged by a fallen tree. (Kris)

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said later at a news conference that the supplies were on the way and that the federal government was "leaning forward as far as it can" to provide assistance to the stricken Houston region.

But Rep. John Culberson, a Republican who represents the western part of Houston, excoriated FEMA for failing to supply police and other first responders who were assisting in the hurricane disaster. At a staging center for first responders in his district, Culberson said, police were out of food and water, and he appealed to area residents to donate provisions from their own depleted pantries.

He also noted that phone repair crews from AT&T were sitting idled at the staging center because they had run out of fuel for their trucks.

Thousands of cars snaked their way toward a furniture store parking lot south of downtown, awaiting a share of 9 tons of ice and 50,000 gallons of bottled water that a radio station was giving away. Most in line waited nearly two hours, meaning they had to burn scarce gasoline to get scarce ice and water.

"I was surprised when I heard FEMA didn't have anything set up," said James Blake, 55, a resident of suburban Pasadena. "I'm just kind of disappointed in the system. This is the first time I've had to go through something like this."

But Harris County chief executive Ed Emmett, the leader of the sprawling county that encompasses Houston, said area residents ought to be more patient considering the enormous challenges, such as downed trees and blocked and flooded roads, that confronted emergency services.

"We're trying to solve people's problems and address people's needs," Emmett told reporters. "Somebody who has had their home completely blown away is in a lot worse shape than somebody who doesn't have a bag of ice."

In Galveston, as rescuers loaded victims they saved onto outbound buses headed for distant shelters across the state, Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas pleaded with residents who evacuated before the hurricane not to try to return. "Galveston has been hit hard," she said. "We have no power. We have no gas. We have no communications. We're not sure when any of that will be up and running. Do not come back to Galveston. You cannot live here at this time."

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