/ 16 September 2008

Texas rushes Ike relief as health crisis looms

Texas officials warned on Monday of a possible health crisis and urged thousands to leave the island city of Galveston, where relief supplies were scarce after the onslaught of Hurricane Ike.

CNN reported on its website that 27 people were killed by Ike and its remnants in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri and Ohio.

In Houston, millions of people had to cope without power as the United States energy hub and fourth-largest city struggled to return to normal.

About 2 000 people have been plucked from flooded areas by helicopters and boats in the largest rescue effort in Texas history as search teams scoured battered communities along the coast and Galveston Bay.

President George Bush will view storm-damaged areas in Texas on Tuesday. He still is trying to rebuild his image as a disaster manager after being widely criticised for a botched relief effort in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Galveston, a city of 60 000, was decimated when Ike made landfall on Saturday morning and 15 000 to 20 000 people remained in quickly degrading conditions.

”There’s nothing to come here for,” Galveston mayor Lyda Ann Thomas told residents still on the island. ”Please leave.”

She called in a cruise ship to house recovery teams. The city was bringing in a refrigerated mobile morgue.

”We cannot accommodate people who are getting sick,” said Galveston city manager Steven LeBlanc. ”You have the potential for a health crisis.”

More than four million people, several oil refineries and many businesses around Houston remained without power. Government agencies will distribute ice, water and packaged meals from tractor-trailers.

Long lines snaked around the few gas stations that were operating in and around Houston, where the car is king, but officials said tankers were rolling in with fuel. Even with gas, many stations remained without power.

”Tanker trucks are coming in to make sure service stations are given fuel,” Ed Emmett, chief executive for Harris County, which includes Houston, told reporters.

The relief roll-out appeared to defuse tensions that had flared between the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) and local officials after Houston mayor Bill White vowed to hold Fema accountable for delivering on its commitments.

‘Fema ain’t been by’
Officials from Texas — which sheltered about 200 000 evacuees when Katrina devastated New Orleans — pressed for equal treatment from federal aid agencies.

”I have asked the president and the administration to just treat us as fairly as they treated Louisiana back during Katrina,” said Texas Governor Rick Perry. ”Texans will take care of the rest.”

Fema said it will deliver 7,5-million meals over the next few days, along with 19,8-million litres of water, 8 700 tonnes of ice and 80 000 tarpaulins.

Residents of Texas and Louisiana are in for tough times, Fema administrator David Paulison said.

”Some people will be out of their homes for not only weeks, but months,” he said.

In Galveston, shocked and bewildered residents staggered through the streets as food and water grew scarce. There was little sign of any federal relief efforts.

”Fema ain’t been by, nobody,” said disabled retiree Vivian Matthews, who was stranded at her flooded apartment for two days. ”They don’t give a damn if we live or die.”

Four deaths were reported by officials in Galveston — scene of the worst US weather disaster when a hurricane killed more than 8 000 people in 1900. One person was killed in the Houston suburb of Pasadena, the mayor said.

‘Very frustrated’
Bush said Texas residents are ”very frustrated” by the slow pace of recovery but ”my message will be that we hear you and we’ll work as hard and fast as we can to help you get your lives back up to normal”.

Power cuts were the main obstacle to recovery and authorities have warned that some people could be without power for days. Electricity is the lifeblood of Gulf Coast refineries that process about a quarter of the country’s fuel.

Ike caused minimal damage to oil refineries along the Gulf Coast. Companies are preparing to restart operations at the 14 refineries in Texas and Louisiana that remained shut due to Ike, the Energy Department said.

Houston, home to a booming economy thanks to energy demand, was still under a dusk-to-dawn curfew due to lack of power.

Houston’s two main airports resumed partial operations. But with debris still littering its streets and windows blown out of office buildings, it could be weeks before the city of more than two million people returns to business as usual. — Reuters