Rescue crews in the US searched neighbourhoods inundated by Hurricane Ike’s storm surge early this 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.
President George 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 Governor Rick Perry’s office said 940 people had been saved by nightfall on Saturday, but that thousands had made distress calls the night before. Another 600 were rescued from flooding in neighbouring Louisiana.
“What’s really frustrating is that we can’t get to them,” Galveston police officer Tommie Mafrei said. “It’s jeopardising 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 today.
Some coastal residents waded through chest-deep water with their belongings and children in their arms to get to safety on 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 on 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 central 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 this morning, but was still packing winds up to 35 mph as it dumped rain over Arkansas and travelled across Missouri. Tornado warning sirens sounded on 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 US metropolitan area since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005.
More than three 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 on Saturday, and lights returned to parts of Houston. In Louisiana, battered by both Ike and Hurricane Gustav on September 1, 180,000 homes and businesses were without power.