GALVESTON, Texas– Hurricane Ike flooded thousands of homes, blew out countless windows and left millions without electricity in Texas and Louisiana Saturday as authorities took to boats and helicopters to help rescue people stranded by the rising water.
The storm claimed at least two lives in Texas after rumbling ashore in Galveston at 2:10 a.m. CDT Saturday as a 110-mph Category 2 cyclone, but officials said the death toll could rise in the coming days, and damage cleanup will likely take six months or longer.
“Most fatalities come after a storm,” said R. David Paulison, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Don’t get impatient. Don’t go out too early.”
As the wind and rain subsided, attention turned to the tens of thousands who ignored mandatory evacuation orders from coastal areas.
Galveston Beach Patrol officers pulled Victor Huerta and Cecilia Rivera out of their flooded home in West Galveston Saturday afternoon.
“We lost everything,” Rivera cried from the rescue boat.
The couple chose not to evacuate, thinking the storm would not be as bad as predicted. But they found themselves fleeing to the attic when water rushed into the house and rose 7 feet up the walls.
Rescue crews plucked them and others trapped in homes and moved them to higher ground elsewhere on the island.
Angie Wright, 49, spent Friday night at a hurricane shelter with her pit bull-boxer mix and tried to return to her Galveston neighborhood Saturday. She appeared disoriented, wearing socks but no shoes as she waded through floodwater and considered aloud where she would go.
“I could just sleep in my car,” she said.
“The unfortunate truth is we’re going to have to go in and put our people in the tough situation to save people who did not choose wisely,” said Andrew Barlow, a spokesman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry. “We’ll probably do the largest search and rescue operation that’s ever been conducted in the state of Texas.”
Perry mobilized 7,500 National Guard troops, Coast Guard helicopters searched for flood victims, and Houston Mayor Bill White said firefighters and police officers started responding to emergencies as soon as conditions became safe Saturday morning.
“It looks like a bomb went off over there,” Houston Police Officer Joseph Ledet told the Associated Press as he looked up at the 75-story JPMorgan Chase Tower and its shattered windows. “Just destruction.”
About 2 million people fled coastal communities before the storm made landfall, but another 140,000 chose to ride out the hurricane at home, according to U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. He flew to Texas Saturday night to assess the damage.
The first two deaths blamed on Ike were a woman in Pinehurst, Texas, who was killed when a tree fell on her home, and a man in Corpus Christi, who slipped off a jetty and was swept out to sea. The storm had already claimed more than 80 lives in the Caribbean last week on its march toward the Gulf Coast.
The American Red Cross provided shelter to 20,000 evacuees at 155 locations in Texas and Arkansas. A woman gave birth at a middle school shelter in New Braunfels, Texas, just northeast of San Antonio.
A geriatric psychiatrist, an intensive-care nurse and a few volunteers helped Ku Paw deliver a baby girl on a bathroom floor at Church Hill Middle School Friday night. Mother and infant were then taken to a local hospital for evaluation.
“It’s kind of like riding a bike,” Dr. Mark Burns said to The Herald-Zeitung newspaper about delivering his first baby in two decades.
President Bush declared a major disaster in Texas and Louisiana and ordered immediate federal aid.
“People of that area can rest assured that the American people are praying for them and will be ready to help once the storm moves on,” Bush said from the White House.
About 3.5 million people lost power in Texas and Louisiana, and power companies warned it could be weeks before all service is restored. Initial tallies indicated several thousand homes were destroyed throughout southeast Texas, including some in Surfside Beach just south of Galveston.
“It’s pretty bad,” Surfside Beach Mayor Larry Davison told AP. “It’ll take six months to clean it up.”
Despite the widespread flooding, officials said the damage would have been catastrophic if Ike had produced a 20- to 25-foot storm surge as some forecasts projected. The actual storm surge topped out at 12 to 15 feet in most areas, said Hans Graber, a University of Miami researcher who studies tidal surges.
“Fortunately, the worst-case scenario did not occur,” Perry said.
Ike was a very wide storm _ about 500 miles _ that affected a large swath from southeast Texas through coastal Louisiana and Mississippi, which are still recovering from Hurricane Gustav on Labor Day. That storm, also a Category 2, came ashore near Grand Isle, La.
In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal said 160 people were rescued from flooded areas Friday, and more rescue operations were underway Saturday. Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach said Ike brought worse flooding to his town than Hurricane Rita did three years ago.
The flooding extended to Mississippi, where schools and waterfront casinos closed Friday, but no deaths or serious injuries were reported. By Saturday the water had begun to slowly subside.
“We dodged another bullet, thank God,” said Jay Cuevas, supervisor for Hancock County, Miss., which experienced flooding along with neighboring Harrison and Jackson counties. “We didn’t feel the impact we could have.”
Houston’s 911 center was inundated with more than 2,000 calls Friday and Saturday. Coast Guard helicopters helped rescue 103 people in Galveston from rooftops and cars before landfall. On Saturday, White said Houston’s water was not contaminated, but he encouraged all residents to boil water or use bottled water until further notice.
Ike’s winds had weakened to 45 mph by Saturday evening as the tropical storm moved northeast toward Arkansas.
The hurricane appeared to have avoided causing major damage to the oil rigs and refineries along the Gulf Coast, but gasoline prices jumped almost 6 cents a gallon due to a fear of shortages.
Bush suspended restrictions on some reformulated gas to make it easier for foreign imports to reach the U.S. market and said federal and state will monitor gasoline prices “so consumers are not being gouged.”
© 2008, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.