GALVESTON, Texas — Thousands of people returned on Wednesday for the first time since their island city was blasted by Hurricane Ike nearly two weeks ago, choosing home over warnings that Galveston is "broken" and infested with germs and snakes. Some returned to find homes in ruins.
Traffic was backed up for 10 miles on the one major highway leading into Galveston, but things appeared to go smoothly once the city of about 57,000 started letting people in about 6 a.m. Many people had been waiting in their cars along Interstate 45 since before dawn.
Police officers were stationed to direct traffic at major intersections where signal lights were ripped away by the hurricane's 110-mph wind and 12-foot storm surge on Sept. 13.
Ruben Rosas, 74, one of those who had fled inland to San Antonio, joined the line on I-45 at about 3 a.m. Once he reached his first-floor apartment located on a bayou, he found that the walls and nearly all his possessions were gone. He did find a large cross that had been on his father's coffin and a small "King of Dads" statue his kids gave him when they were young.
"This is just sad, but the good thing is, I'm still around," Rosas said. "I can recuperate these things sooner or later."
City officials had prepared residents for such scenes, painting a dreary picture about living conditions on the island since Ike's devastation.
"When you come back it's not going to be the same Galveston Island you left," Mayor Pro Tem Danny Weber said Tuesday. "It's been damaged. It's been broken."
The mayor and others warned people not to return without tetanus shots and rat bait, and to be ready for swarms of mosquitoes and displaced snakes. Residents were told to bring their own water and to not even consider turning on the gas or flipping an electrical switch until one of the island's three remaining electrical inspectors can examine the property.
Patricia Davis had to wave away some of those mosquitoes as she surveyed the remains of her apartment, its entrance blocked by collapsed walls, wrecked furniture and sodden clothing.
"I wasn't prepared for this. It's like a war zone," said Davis, 53, a taxi driver.
Diane and Eddie Howard were trying to sell one house on Galveston Island and had just bought another one when Ike struck. The 'For Sale' sign from one house lay amid debris that had been submerged in 8 feet of water; their newly bought house burned down during the storm.
"I've been through all kinds of hurricanes," said Eddie Howard, who was born on the island 77 years ago. "This is the worst one."
There is little drinkable water, limited food, sewer and medical facilities. A curfew is in effect nightly from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
"We do want to caution folks. There will be some struggles," said Marty Bahamonde, spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
At least 61 deaths, 26 of them in Texas, were blamed on the Category 2 hurricane and its remnants.
Roughly 45,000 of the city's 57,000 residents fled Galveston Island, about 50 miles southeast of Houston, along with hundreds of thousands more from other sections of the Texas coast.
Residents of the island's most severely damaged area, on the island's west end, may visit their homes but are not being allowed to stay.
City Manager Steve LeBlanc said more hotels in Galveston are reopening and will be available for residents who return and find that their homes are uninhabitable, but he expects those rooms will be quickly snapped up.
Gov. Rick Perry toured the Ike-battered areas on Wednesday and announced a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rental assistance program to help hurricane victims.
City officials are working on a plan to provide temporary shelters on the mainland for people whose homes are not habitable. But LeBlanc stressed the shelters would be available only for a short time.
City leaders also are looking at setting up a shuttle service to take residents from the temporary shelters to their houses during the day so they can make repairs and clean up.
In spite of the problems, Galveston is slowly coming back to life with some stores and restaurants reopening, and there are other signs of recovery throughout southeast Texas.
CenterPoint Energy Inc. reported on Tuesday that 73 percent of its 2.26 million customers now had electricity. Entergy Texas reported that 89 percent of its nearly 393,000 customers affected by Hurricane Ike had power again.
On Tuesday, Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas and other city leaders went to Washington to ask lawmakers for nearly $2.5 billion in emergency funds.
Galveston leaders are optimistic their city will bounce back.
"This is our island. We are going to rebuild it and we are going to rebuild it bigger and better than it was," Weber said.
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