Galveston allows residents to return

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Even before dawn, Galveston-bound traffic was stacked up on Interstate 45 for 10 miles from the entrance to the only causeway to the island city left open after the hurricane.

Many Galveston residents haven't been back to their island community since fleeing Hurricane Ike more than 11 days ago. Island leaders were to allow them back Wednesday morning.

With the dreary picture city officials have painted about living conditions on the island since Ike's devastation, the question might be whether residents want to go home again and stay, once they get there?

"When you come back it's not going to be the same Galveston Island you left," said Galveston Mayor Pro Tem Danny Weber. "It's been damaged. It's been broken."

Hurricane Ike, a Category 2 storm, battered Galveston with 110 mph winds and a 12-foot storm surge, flooding homes and destroying businesses, more than a week ago. At least 61 deaths, including 26 in Texas were attributed to Ike.

About 45,000 of the city's 57,000 residents fled Galveston Island, about 50 miles southeast of Houston.

Residents of the island's west end, which was severely damaged by Ike, can visit their homes, but are not being allowed to stay in them.

Galveston still only has limited medical, power, water and sewer system capabilities.

Marty Bahamonde, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, advised residents who planned to stay to be self sufficient and bring their own food, water and gasoline. There is also a nightly curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

"We do want to caution folks. There will be some struggles," Bahamonde said.

Mark Guidry, the head of the Galveston County Health District, warned incoming residents that health care services on the island are limited.

"There remains significant health and safety concerns on the island," he said.

City Manager Steve LeBlanc said more hotels in Galveston are reopening and will be available for residents who return and determine that their homes are uninhabitable.

But LeBlanc expects those rooms will be quickly snapped up. City officials are working on a plan to provide temporary shelters on the mainland for those who find homes they can't live in. 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.

While electricity and natural gas are being restored in Galveston, LeBlanc said those services in each home will have to be inspected by the city before being allowed to be turned on again.

But Galveston is slowly coming back to life with some stores and restaurants reopening while there are other signs throughout southeast Texas of recovery.

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 were in Washington, D.C., to ask lawmakers for nearly $2.5 billion in emergency funds.

The city tried before to allow residents back. It announced Sept. 16 that people could briefly return under a "look and leave" plan, causing evacuees all over the state to pack up and head for the coast. But hours later, it abruptly halted the policy.

Galveston leaders remain optimistic their city would bounce back after Ike.

"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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