GALVESTON, Texas (AP) – More than 48 hours after Hurricane Ike swamped the Gulf Coast, rescuers flew for the first time Monday into areas cut off by the storm and found a scene of devastation, with whole subdivisions obliterated, and began evacuating survivors.
A Texas helicopter task force flew 115 rescuers onto the heavily damaged resort barrier island of Bolivar Peninsula, just east of hard-hit Galveston. Task force leader Chuck Jones said they were the first rescuers to reach the area that is home to about 30,000 people in the peak summer beach season.
“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.
Jones did not have information on whether anyone had died on the island, mainly because they still don’t know how many stayed through the storm that struck early last Saturday.
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.
Two days after Ike battered Houston and forced thousands into emergency shelters, the death toll rose to 30 in eight states, many of them far to the north of the Gulf Coast, as the storm slogged across the nation’s midsection, leaving a trail of flooding and destruction.
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, but 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 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.
A line of at least 30 cars formed early Monday at a strip mall in Orange, a Texas town on the Louisiana state line east of Beaumont, a day after food and water were distributed there by the National Guard. But the line dispersed after state troopers told the gathering that supplies would be passed out elsewhere.
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, 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.”