(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
ORANGE, Texas - Even as they plucked people from rooftops and wrecked neighborhoods on Saturday, emergency responders grumbled over how many brushed off dire warnings and tried to ride out Hurricane Ike.
"When you stay behind in the face of a warning, not only do you jeopardize yourself, you put the firdst responders at risk as well," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said. "Now we're going to see this play out."
While more than 2 million people evacuated ahead of Ike, tens of thousands more ignored evacuation orders and swamped rescue crews Saturday with emergency calls from the the flooded lowlands of East Texas and western Louisiana.
"Of course it's frustrating. There was a mandatory evacuation, and people didn't leave," said Steve LeBlanc, Galveston's city manager. "They had enough time to get out. It's just unfortunate that they decided to stay."
Federal, state and local crew ventured out in boats, high-wheeled trucks — even dump trucks to save them. Dozens of helicopters soon joined the effort, along with Coast Guard jets.
"Where we see people, we're picking them up," said Jack Colley, director of the Texas division of emergency management.
There were few reports of fatalities, though authorities stressed that high winds and flooded roads had kept them from reaching some of the hardest-hit areas.
"We've heard some unconfirmed reports of a few deaths," Chertoff said. "We hope it's as small a number as possible, but we're going to have to wait and see."
The enormous size of the storm presented its own set of problems for rescuers.
Ike spanned more than 700 miles and caused damage from south of Houston to the mouth of the Mississippi. In this vast area, rescuers struggled to pinpoint the hardest-hit places — and the most needy — among a patchwork of debris, fallen trees and flooded homes.
A spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency said they had received numerous and conflicting reports about where the damage was — and how bad.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry called it the largest search and rescue operation in the state's history.
"If you're in an affected area, we are on our way to help you," Perry said.
On the road to Galveston Island, where Ike struck land early Saturday, crumpled boats, inner tubes, rotting wood and canoes littered Interstate 45 as FEMA teams headed into the impact zone.
One team stopped along the highway to set up a satellite truck and feed images of the destruction to FEMA administrator David Paulison in Washington. Earlier, FEMA personnel spent hours inside the Reliant Center stadium in Houston, some tossing a football while they waited for rescue calls to come in.
"We don't send our teams out blindly," said Mark Stone, a FEMA spokesman.
Meanwhile, Galveston officials reported rescuing more than 100 people on the island. Rescue crews were ferrying storm victims to a staging area where transportation and medical attention were available, he said.
State emergency responders also teamed with the Coast Guard to rescue four critically ill patients from a Galveston hospital.
Elsewhere, Coast Guard crews scoured the choppy waters off Corpus Christi searching for a 19-year-old who was swept out to sea while standing on a jetty on Friday.
Up the coast in Orange and Jefferson counties, some officials said the damage from Ike was even worse than Hurricane Rita, which rampaged through the region in 2005. There was widespread flooding in Orange and Bridge City, where rescuers were pulling people from attics and rooftops, and in Lake Charles, across the Louisiana line.
In Beaumont, officials said wind and not flooding was responsible for most of the damage; downed power lines and a damaged sewer treatment plant were among the problems reported.
The region was evacuated ahead of Hurricane Gustav, which missed southeast Texas, and many were relucant to leave this time, Fire Capt. Brad Penisson said.
"A lot of people felt it was a false alarm," he said. "I think they're realizing this is not a false alarm."
Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Galveston and Andre Coe in College Station contributed to this report.