Ten days after Hurricane Ike hit land, Galveston reopened to residents Wednesday with stern warnings about what still lurks on the island – rotting cattle carcasses, snakes and swarms of mosquitoes – and what isn't there – drinking water, reliable electricity, medical care and sewer service.
After spending hours in traffic that backed up for 10 miles, some residents found their homes in ruins.
“I wasn't prepared for this,” taxi driver Patricia Davis said as she swatted away mosquitoes and surveyed the remains of her apartment, which had its entrance blocked by collapsed walls, wrecked furniture and sodden clothing.
City officials hoped most of the 45,000 residents who fled before the Sept. 13 storm would stay away until more repairs could be made.
“We didn't promise paradise when you came back here. We've got a lot of work to do. You've got a lot of work to do,” City Manager Steve LeBlanc said Wednesday.
The city has limited drinking water, few working sewers, limited electricity and minimal medical facilities. Officials extended the disaster declaration for 90 days.
What Galveston does have is ripening in the tropical heat: Rotting food in piles of debris where houses once stood, millions of mosquitoes and an abundance of snakes. The carcasses of cattle that drowned during the storm are too badly decomposed to be moved; they'll rot in the fields just outside the city limits.
People were warned not to return without tetanus shots – or rat bait.
“Being here today kind of gives me some closure,” said Anita Arredondo, who found a pile of rubble where her two-story home once stood. “I have not been sleeping well, worried about what we could save and what we couldn't.”
Ken Holman said he wished city leaders had allowed residents to return sooner because it might have allowed him to save more of his mother's belongings from the house she lived in for 56 years. The home was inundated by 4 feet of water.
“Just the fact it took us this long to get in here, that kind of hurts,” he said.
The city has opened a shelter for 100 newly homeless residents, and officials hoped to set up more shelters on the mainland for residents whose homes are uninhabitable, LeBlanc said.
The city and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are considering a plan to allow residents to live in FEMA trailers in their driveways or near their houses during repairs. But LeBlanc noted he would want all trailers removed from the island before the start of the 2009 hurricane season.
At least 62 deaths, 27 of them in Texas, were blamed on the Category 2 hurricane and its remnants. The body of a woman who apparently drowned was uncovered in a debris field north of Galveston.
Nearly 50 residents are still missing, LeBlanc said.
Arredondo, whose home was destroyed, salvaged what she could – clothes, a few photographs, some jewelry and, to her surprise, most of her 35-year-old China set.
“I'm looking at this and I just don't know,” the 58-year-old said. “I just can't get over this. It's a shock. I could sit here and cry, but oh well. We just have to make it day by day. We will be all right.”