Relief Operations Ramp Up in Storm-Hit Texas

September 15, 2008

A huge relief effort was accelerating in storm-struck Texas Monday as the big oil center of Houston struggled to get back to business after it was battered by Hurricane Ike.

About 2,000 people had been rescued from flooded areas in the largest such effort in the state’s history as searchers scoured hard-hit places like the devastated island city of Galveston, which was shredded when the hurricane made landfall Saturday morning before heading inland to Houston.

Reuters energy correspondent Erwin Seba reported that 12 of the 15 Texas oil refineries that had been shut as a precaution showed no visible signs of flooding or damage — a sign fuel production could resume more quickly than initially thought. But power outages could still hinder their start-up.

Oil prices fell below $100 a barrel to a six-month low Monday on early signs that Ike may have spared important Gulf Coast infrastructure.

Over 4 million people, several refineries and many businesses and gas stations remained without power, but floods were receding as crucial aid such as ice, water and food was being delivered to distribution points.

“Sixty trucks with supplies rolled in earlier tonight. … As we are standing here, deliveries are being made,” Ed Emmett, chief executive for Harris County, which includes Houston, told a news briefing Sunday night.

He added that six relief distribution points were already up and running and he expected 17 to be in operation by later Monday.

The relief roll-out appeared to defuse tensions that flared between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local officials as hard-pressed residents complained about the time it was taking to get supplies to those in need.

Local officials later attributed the rift to confusion over who was responsible for doing what in the relief chain, a situation that led to delays.

The Bush administration came under heavy fire for its botched relief efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Floods have been among the obstacles to rescue efforts and aid operations, but officials said the waters were receding.


Houston Mayor Bill White said all city employees were expected to show up to work Monday as the country’s fourth most populous city tries to get up and running again.

The city’s two main airports were to resume partial operations Monday, but with debris still littering its streets and windows blown out of office buildings, as well as power problems, it seemed unlikely the city of more than 2 million people would return to business as usual soon.

That point was underscored by the imposition in Houston of a weeklong dusk-to-dawn curfew.

Power provider CenterPoint Energy reported it had restored power to 380,000 customers, but over 1.7 million or 76 percent of its clients remained without electricity as of Sunday night.

At least three bodies were found in Galveston, which sustained some of the worst damage of the storm. The scale of destruction became apparent as authorities allowed more people to return.

The downtown area, containing the few buildings that survived a hurricane in 1900 that killed thousands, was under a layer of foul-smelling mud and sewage. Boats, water scooters and even a catamaran were strewn on the streets.

Many residents traveled in cars, trucks or bicycles or pushed supermarket carts to a National Guard distribution point to pick up water, ice and ready-to-eat meals.

“It looks like a war zone. Everything is gone. It’s heartbreaking,” said Susan Rybick, a retiree driving along the seafront with her husband, John.

Some lifelong residents said they had not left the city before Ike because they had weathered previous storms and expected to manage on high ground.

“I live in an elevated area and I didn’t think it (water) could come through that high,” said Kevin Gonzalez, describing the storm surge that flooded his house early Saturday. “When I went downstairs, my furniture was floating.””

(Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor on Galveston, Erwin Seba in Port Arthur, and Eileen O’Grady, Anna Driver and Bruce Nichols in Houston; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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