Rescue crews in the US navigated debris-strewn streets to reach people still stuck in some of the thousands of homes flooded by Hurricane Ike, while authorities in the fourth-largest US city, imposed a curfew and warned residents that it would be weeks before Houston is fully back up and running.
Heavy morning rains hampered early rescue efforts in the hardest-hit areas of the Texas and Louisiana gulf coasts, while those who had evacuated and tried to return to the Houston area today found both interstate highways and sidestreets blocked by flooding and debris.
Authorities hoped to spare thousands of Texans – 140,000 by some estimates who ignored orders to flee ahead of Hurricane Ike – from another night amid the destruction.
At least seven deaths were blamed on the storm – two in Louisiana and five in Texas, and authorities worried the toll could rise. Authorities said three people were found dead in Galveston, including one person found in a submerged vehicle near the airport.
In Houston, a week-long curfew from 9pm to 6am was announced because most of the city was still without power. Highways, darkened streetlights and pooled water made it difficult to drive.
“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.
This morning, residents of the tiny community of Seabrook near the Johnson Space Centre began trying to return home. They were met by a roadblock, and three Seabrook police officers standing in the rain, turning folks away. At times the line was six to 12 cars deep.
“Seabrook is a disaster area: no sewer, no infrastructure. It really isn’t safe,” said officer Charlie Skinner. “It’s making residents pretty upset. I understand, but ... There’s an order signed by the mayor. We can’t let anybody in.”
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.
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.
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 Mr Claybar, who had no idea of how many people were still stranded. Mr 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, Mr Claybar said. He didn’t know exactly how long it would take to drain the city.
“I would say at least a couple of days,” he said.
Overnight, a team of paramedics, rescue dogs and structural engineers fanned out under a nearly full moon on a finger of land in Galveston Bay. To the north-east, Coast Guard crews also worked into early this morning, pulling a half dozen people out of Bridge City before rescue missions were suspended for the night.
Five-year-old Jack King escaped serious injury when 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 the Texas Task Force 1 Search and Rescue crew 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.
The Kings had hoped that a family member would pick them up, but a paramedic told him the road inland wouldn’t be open for days. Lee King, the boy’s father, thought they could survive another night, but then their generator died. He ultimately decided the family was ready to leave.
“We just didn’t think it was going to come up like this,” said Mr King. “I’m from New Orleans, I know better. I just didn’t think it was going to happen.”
Ike was the first major storm to directly hit a major US metropolitan area since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005.
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 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.
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 Labour Day’s Hurricane Gustav, 180,000 homes and businesses were in the dark.
Eighty-year-old Ruth Willis’ cancer treatments were interrupted when her family loaded her hospital bed into the back of an sport utility vehicle and fled Houston ahead of the storm. They have since been moving from place to place, trying to find somewhere to stay, but every time they checked into a hotel, electricity would go out and they had to move.
“We got her here and got her cancer treatment started, and then the hurricane came,” said Mrs Willis’ daughter, Zee Ellis, 57, of Terlton, Oklahoma, who had pulled into a rest area on Interstate 10 to wait out the Sunday morning downpour “I’m worried about my mother’s medical condition. We haven’t been able to get to anyone at the clinic on the phone.”
Those who did leave were glad they heeded orders, despite the inconvenience. Retired nurse Ida Mayfield said that because Gustav hit Louisiana and not Beaumont two weeks ago, many decided not to evacuate ahead of Ike. She was warm and dry at a church-turned-shelter in Tyler, along with thousands of her neighbours.
“Two o’clock this morning made a believer out of all of them,” said the 52-year-old Mrs Mayfield, adding that she spoke to a friend who was on a roof waiting for help after calling the emergency dispatcher. “They’re scared now.”