By JUAN A. LOZANO
Associated Press Writer
GALVESTON, Texas (AP) -- Thousands of residents streamed back to their storm-battered island city Wednesday, many for the first time since fleeing the wrath of Hurricane Ike nearly two weeks ago.
Huge lines of traffic backed up on the one major highway leading into Galveston, but things appeared to go smoothly once the city of about 57,000 started letting people in about 6 a.m. Many people had been waiting in their cars along Interstate 45 since before dawn.
Police officers were stationed to direct traffic at major intersections where signal lights were ripped away by the hurricane's 110-mile-per-hour wind and 12-foot storm surge on Sept. 13.
Ruben Rosas, 74, one of those who had fled to San Antonio, had joined the line on I-45 at about 3 a.m. Once he reached his first-floor apartment located on a bayou, he found that the walls and nearly all his possessions were gone. He did find a large cross that had been on his father's coffin and a small "King of Dads" statue his kids gave him when they were young.
"This is just sad, but the good thing is, I'm still around," Rosas said. "I can recuperate these things sooner or later."
City officials had prepared residents for such scenes, painting a dreary picture about living conditions on the island since Ike's devastation.
"When you come back it's not going to be the same Galveston Island you left," Mayor Pro Tem Danny Weber said Tuesday. "It's been damaged. It's been broken."
At least 61 deaths, 26 of them in Texas, were blamed on the Category 2 hurricane and its remnants.
Roughly 45,000 of the city's 57,000 residents fled Galveston Island, about 50 miles southeast of Houston, along with hundreds of thousands more along other sections of the Texas coast.
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 to bring their own food, water and gasoline. There is a nightly curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
"We do want to caution folks. There will be some struggles," Bahamonde said.
Health care services on the island also are limited, warned Mark Guidry, head of the Galveston County Health District.
"There remains significant health and safety concerns on the island," he said.
Residents of the island's severely damaged west end may visit their homes but are not being allowed to stay.
City Manager Steve LeBlanc said more hotels in Galveston are reopening and will be available for residents who return and find that their homes are uninhabitable, but he expects those rooms will be quickly snapped up.
City officials are working on a plan to provide temporary shelters on the mainland for people whose homes are not habitable. 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.
In spite of the problems, Galveston is slowly coming back to life with some stores and restaurants reopening, and there are other signs of recovery throughout southeast Texas.
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 went to Washington to ask lawmakers for nearly $2.5 billion in emergency funds.
Galveston leaders are optimistic their city will bounce back.
"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.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)