More than 48 hours after Hurricane Ike swamped the U.S. Gulf Coast and forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, rescuers flew for the first time Monday into areas cut off by the storm, evacuating survivors and finding whole neighborhoods obliterated.
A Texas helicopter task force flew 115 rescuers onto the heavily damaged resort barrier island of Bolivar Peninsula, just east of the hard-hit city of Galveston. Task force leader Chuck Jones said they were the first rescuers to reach the area.
“They had a lot of devastation over there,” Jones said. “It took a direct hit.”
Some subdivisions in the area are completely gone, he said.
Of particular concern is a resident who collects exotic animals who is now holed up in a Baptist church with his pet lion. “We’re not going in there,” Jones said. “We know where he (the lion) is on the food chain.”
Relief workers were hoping to make it back from Bolivar to Galveston on Monday night, but they were packing for an overnight stay just in case.
Houston, littered with glass from skyscrapers, was placed under a weeklong curfew and millions of people in the storm’s path remained in the dark.
Rescuers said they had saved nearly 2,000 people from waterlogged streets and splintered houses by Sunday afternoon. Many had ignored evacuation orders and tried to ride out the storm. Now they were boarding buses for indefinite stays at shelters in San Antonio and Austin.
Brian Smith, public information officer from the Urban Search and Rescue Division of the Texas Engineering Extension Service, said Monday that search and rescue missions continued across the affected area, although no air rescues had been needed since Sunday morning.
“Operations are ongoing,” Smith said. “They will continue until we’ve heard from every local incident commander and been assured by them that search and rescue missions are no longer needed.”
In hard-hit towns like Orange, Bridge City and Galveston, authorities searched door-to-door into the night, hoping to reach an untold number of people still in their homes, many without power or supplies.
Many of those who did make it to safety boarded buses without knowing where they were going or when they could return to what might remain of their homes.
Shelters across Texas scurried to find enough cots, and some evacuees arrived with little cash and no idea of what the coming days held.
Even for those who still have a home to go to, Ike’s 110 mph winds and battering waves left thousands in coastal areas without electricity, gas and basic communications – and officials estimated it may not be restored for a month.
“We want our citizens to stay where they are,” said a weary Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas. “Do not come back to Galveston. You cannot live here at this time.”
Michael Geml has braved other storms in his bay front neighborhood in Galveston, where he’s lived for 25 years, though none quite like Ike.
“I’ll never stay again,” Geml said. “I don’t care what the weatherman says – a Category 1, a Category 2. I thought I was going to die.”
The hurricane also battered the heart of the U.S. oil industry as Ike destroyed at least 10 production platforms, officials said. Details about the size and production capacity of the destroyed platforms were not immediately available, but the damage was to only a fraction of the 3,800 platforms in the Gulf.
It was too soon to know how seriously it would affect oil and gas prices.
Ike was downgraded to a tropical depression as it moved north. Roads were closed in Kentucky because of high winds. As far north as Chicago, dozens of people in a suburb had to be evacuated by boat. Two million people were without power in Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana.
Associated Press Writers Michael Kunzelman in Orange, Juan A. Lozano and Jon Gambrell in Galveston, Allen G. Breed in Sabine Pass, Doug Simpson in Baton Rouge, La., and Pauline Arrillaga and Chris Duncan in Houston contributed to this report.
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