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Officials Struggle to Provide Relief to Hurricane Zone in Texas


More than a million people remain without electrical power and other normal services nearly five days after Hurricane Ike passed over the Houston-Galveston area. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, tensions are growing between various government entities over problems in providing needed relief.

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff says he may have to, as he puts it, "kick someone in the rear" over reported failures in the federal effort to provide disaster victims with food, water, ice and material to cover damaged roofs.

Callers to local radio stations are complaining about lack of electrical power and fuel, and blaming government officials for the delays in providing relief. Lack of coordination has been a problem in some cases.

There was one report of food donations from a large grocery store chain being turned away by federal officials at a point of distribution in Houston.

On Tuesday, Houston officials took control of supply distributions after they learned of people standing in line for hours only to be turned away empty handed. Chertoff says some of the problem may result from the Houston metropolitan area's sprawl, which he says makes it a logistical challenge to get supplies to the right places.

He is to meet with Houston Mayor Bill White and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett in the coming hours to work out problems and foster better cooperation.

Meantime, in Galveston, officials have had to suspend a program started Tuesday that would allow residents to return to the stricken island to check their property and then leave before sunset. A massive line of vehicles formed after the announcement was made and the traffic was slowed further by officials checking every person's identification before letting them proceed.

After a heated city council meeting, Galveston city Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas won extension of her emergency powers for another week, but complaints from displaced citizens are growing.

Most of the beachfront area on the island was devastated, but houses and business buildings farther in withstood the storm even though many of them are in dire need of repairs and cleaning because of the storm surge from Hurricane Ike.

Many buildings downtown show a high water mark, left by the flood, more than two meters high. Merchandise, furniture and equipment inside many businesses were soaked and, in many cases, ruined by the water.

The biggest problem for most of the Houston area is lack of energy - a matter viewed with some chagrin by residents of the city that touts itself as the "energy capital of the world."

Refineries came through the hurricane with little damage, but they are struggling to resume full operations, partly because they are operating on emergency generators.

People are still waiting in long lines for gasoline at the few stations that have fuel and more than a million people remain without electricity.

Texas Governor Rick Perry says private companies that supply power to the Houston area are making progress in restoring electric lines.

"There are more than 7,500 personnel working around the clock to restore power, you see trucks from Minnesota and Florida, they are here and they are doing work to get this power back on," he said.

Perry says close to three million people were without power after the storm.

Each day that goes by without full electrical service represents a huge financial loss, not only for the businesses and corporate operations based in Houston, but for the entire country. Refineries in the area produce almost a quarter of the transportation fuel used in the United States and Houston's port is the second busiest in the nation, when operating normally.

Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States and the metropolitan area is the sixth largest. Having this area shut down for more than a week represents a hard blow to the U.S. economy at a time when the housing finance crisis and Wall Street failures are hammering the markets.

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