Hurricane Ike has now passed over Houston and is weakening as it moves farther inland over east Texas. The storm is still generating heavy rain and high winds throughout the area, so officials say it may take some time to determine how much damage was done. VOA's Greg Flakus rode out the storm in our Houston bureau and has this report.
Ike brought a powerful storm surge all along the southeast Texas coast and parts of Louisiana, but the six-meter-high surge that some forecasters had predicted for Galveston apparently did not occur. The National Weather Service reports it was about half that size. Still, initial reports from the island city indicate that there was widespread flooding and damage to many dwellings. At least two buildings in Galveston and one in downtown Houston burned because high winds prevented firefighters from reaching them on time.
Ike was a huge storm, stretching out for about 1,000 kilometers as it came ashore. The storm downed trees and power lines in a large area of east Texas and caused some flooding in low-lying areas far from the coast.
Close to four million people are without electrical power as a result of the storm. State and federal officials are moving in to the effected areas now to provide relief to people who sheltered in their homes during the hurricane's passage and are now without power and other essential services.
Officials ordered mandatory evacuations of areas along the coast where there was danger from the storm surge, but told others to stay home or inside safe building established as shelters. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who supervised emergency operations for Houston, says this was the right decision.
"After the storm passes, individuals or families can assess their situation, deal with it and then if they need to leave until power comes back or until their home repairs are made, they are in a much better position to do it, having been here and then leaving, rather than if they had evacuated, then they would not know what had happened to their home and all those people would be trying to come back in and it would have generated some amount of chaos," he said.
Rescue operations continue in the storm surge zone where thousands of people defied mandatory evacuation orders. Even before the hurricane reached Galveston rescue crews saved close to 300 people who decided too late that they would not be safe in their homes. As the winds die down, rescue workers are going out to the afflicted areas along the coast to locate people who may need help.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has 3,500 people in staging areas near the disaster zone ready to move in and help victims of the hurricane. The agency has ready 5.5 million pre-packaged meals, 5.6 million liters of water and 230 generators for use in areas where electrical power may not be restored for weeks.