As Hurricane Ike's floodwaters receded, thousands of volunteers went into waist-deep waters along the Texas coast to perform a remarkable feat: Float through every flooded street, knock on every door, find every person who stayed through the storm.
They found a 5-year-old boy who crashed through an attic. They found an elderly woman who stuck out the storm with her soggy dog. But usually, they weren't finding bodies.
Authorities said Sunday they had rescued nearly 2,000 people in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike's strike on the Texas and Louisiana coasts. Though crews planned to keep combing flooded streets Sunday night with boats and dump trucks, they were encouraged that time and time again, they knocked on doors and found life.
“If we save ONE it's worth it. It doesn't matter to us. We help everybody we come across,” said Capt. Perry Manuel of the Port Arthur Fire Department, who stood as giant air boats and even an alligator floated by the floodwaters around him. On his head, he wore a hat that said “First in…. Last out.”
More than 48 hours after the first hurricane to make a direct hit on a major U.S. city since Katrina in 2005, authorities still weren't sure how many people were left after riding out the storm. Though the death toll was low, no one was declaring victory until they were sure every resident had been accounted for.
“I'm still concerned. We're not through checking yet,” said Shawn Oubre, the city manager in hard-hit Orange. “I'm not at that comfort level yet.”
Ike was downgraded to a tropical depression as it moved into the nation's midsection and left more harm in its wake. Roads were closed in Kentucky because of high winds. As far north as Chicago, dozens of people in a suburb had to be evacuated by boat. Two million people were without power in Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana.
The death toll rose to at least 25 people in nine states. Five were in the hard-hit barrier island city of Galveston, including one body found in a vehicle submerged in floodwater at the airport. Many deaths, however, were outside of Texas as the storm slogged north.
Ike's 110 mph winds and battering waves left Galveston 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,” Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said. “Do not come back to Galveston. You cannot live here right now.”
Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city, was reduced to near-paralysis in some places. Power was on in downtown office towers Sunday afternoon, and Texas Medical Center, the world's largest medical complex, was unscathed and remained open. Both places have underground power lines.
Its two airports – including George Bush Intercontinental, one of the busiest in the United States – were set to reopen Monday with limited service, but schools were closed until further notice, and the business district was shuttered.
Authorities said Sunday that 1,984 people had been rescued, including 394 by air. In addition to people who were literally plucked to safety, the figure includes people who were met by crews as they waded through floodwaters trying to get to dry ground.
Still others chose to remain in their homes along the Texas coast even after the danger of the storm had passed. There was no immediate count Sunday of how many people remained in their homes, or how many were in danger. The Red Cross reported 42,000 people were at state and Red Cross shelters Saturday night.
The search-and-rescue effort was the largest in Texas history, including more than 50 helicopters, 1,500 searchers and teams from federal, state and local agencies.
Once evacuees were safe and dry, there was another problem – where they would go. Some buses went to shelters in San Antonio and Austin. Shelters across Texas scurried to find cots, and some arrived with little cash and no idea of what the coming days held.
From the city of Orange alone, near the Louisiana line, more than 700 people sought dry ground – “a Herculean effort to organize a reverse evacuation that nobody had ever planned for,” Mayor Brown Claybar said.
Hundreds of people wrapped around a high school in Galveston, some with pets, overstuffed duffel bags and medicine as they waited to board a bus to a shelter. Some didn't know where they were going, and even more didn't know when they could return.
“I have nowhere to go,” said Ldyyan Jonjocque, 61, waiting for a bus while holding the leashes of her four Australian shepherd dogs. She said she had to leave two dogs behind in her home. She wept as she told of officers rescuing her in a dump truck.