(CBS/AP) Rescuers in boats, helicopters and high-water trucks fanned out along the flood-stricken Texas coast Saturday in a monumental effort to reach tens of thousands of people who stubbornly ignored warnings and tried to ride out Hurricane Ike.
The storm roared ashore hours before daybreak with 110 mph winds and towering waves, smashing houses, flooding thousands of homes, blowing out windows in Houston's skyscrapers, and cutting off power to more than 3 million people. Utility companies were already warning that it may take up to a month to restore power to all the affected areas, reports CBS News correspondent Hari Sreenivasan. Some homes, though, had power restored Saturday night.
By nightfall, it appeared that Ike was not the single calamitous stroke that forecasters had feared. But the full extent of the damage - or even a rough sense of how many people may have perished was still unclear, in part because many roads were impassable.
Some authorities feared that this could instead become a slow-motion disaster, with thousands of victims trapped in their homes, waiting for days to be rescued.
"We will be doing this probably for the next week or more. We hope it doesn't turn into a recovery," said Sheriff's Sgt. Dennis Marlow in Orange County, where 600 to 700 people had to be rescued from flooded homes. He said hundreds were probably still stranded.
By some estimates, more than 140,000 of the 1 million or so people who had been ordered to evacuate the coast as Ike drew near may have tried to tough it out. Many of them evidently realized the mistake too late, and pleaded with authorities in vain to save them overnight.
The storm, which killed more than 80 in the Caribbean before reaching the U.S., was blamed for at least four lives, two each in Texas and Louisiana.
Since Ike made landfall, there have been 940 rescues in Texas of people stranded in homes, vehicles and elsewhere, said Gov. Rick Perry's spokeswoman Allison Castle. In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal said nearly 600 people were plucked from Ike's floodwaters since Friday and that search and rescue teams believe the largest number of rescues was behind them.
A downgraded Ike clung to tropical storm status late Saturday with sustained winds near 40 mph. The storm's core was about 100 miles southwest of Little Rock, Arkansas, at 11 p.m. EDT as Ike rumbled northward out of Texas, the National Hurricane Center in Miami reported.
The center warned residents of Arkansas, northern Louisiana and southern Missouri that Ike was still dangerous and could unleash isolated tornadoes and dump from 3 to 8 inches of rain anywhere in a wide swath of the nation's midsection.
A man named Michael told The Early Show weather anchor Dave Price that he and two friends rode out the storm and were rescued from the roof of their apartment building in Galveston, Texas.
"We made it through [Hurricane] Carla, made it through Alicia," he said. "We all assumed we would make it through this one."
Ronnie Sharp, 65, and his terrier-mix Princess, had to be rescued from his trailer in Orange County when water reached his knees. "I was getting too many snakes in the house, otherwise I would have stayed," Sharp said. He said he lost most everything in the flood.
After the storm had passed, National Guardsmen and crews from the Coast Guard, FEMA and state and local law enforcement authorities mobilized for what Perry pronounced "the largest search-and-rescue operation in the history of the state of Texas."
Hundreds of those rescued from inundated Orange County homes were expected to be bused to shelters elsewhere in Texas.
Some emergency officials were angry and frustrated that so many people ignored the warnings.
"When you stay behind in the face of a warning, not only do you jeopardize yourself, you put the first responders at risk as well," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said. "Now we're going to see this play out."
Steve LeBlanc, Galveston's city manager, said: "There was a mandatory evacuation, and people didn't leave, and that is very frustrating because now we are having to deal with everybody who did not heed the order."
Because Ike was so huge - some 500 miles across, making it nearly as big as Texas itself - hurricane winds pounded the coast for hours before and after the storm waded ashore. Ike soon weakened to a tropical storm en route inland, but continued to pound the state with 60 mph winds and rain.
Officials were encouraged to learn that the storm surge topped out at only 15 feet - far lower than the catastrophic 20-to-25 foot wall of water forecasters had feared.
Preliminary industry estimates indicate damage at $8 billion.
Damage to the nation's biggest complex of refineries and petrochemical plants appeared to be slight, but gasoline prices shot up for fear that the supply would be interrupted by power outages and the time necessary to restart a refinery. In some parts of the country, gas prices surged briefly to $5 a gallon.
Hundreds of people were rescued from their flooded-out homes, in many cases by emergency crews that had to make their way through high water and streets blocked by peeled-away roofs, wayward yachts and uprooted trees.
Chertoff cautioned the death toll could rise as searchers reached remote areas.
Among deaths in Texas, a woman was killed in her sleep when a tree fell on her home near Pinehurst, and a 19-year-old man slipped off a jetty near Corpus Christi and was apparently washed away.
In Louisiana, Terrebonne Parish coroner senior investigator Gary Alford says a 16-year-old boy drowned in his house in Bayou Dularge, when he fell through wooden pallets used as flooring and floodwaters rose. Alford also said a 57-year-old man died from a broken neck after he was blown over by wind.
Lisa Lee spent hours on the roof of her Bridge City home with her husband, John, her 16-year-old brother, William Robinson, and their two dogs. They dove into 8-foot floodwaters and swam to safety after a sheriff's deputy arrived in a truck and drove as close to their home as he could. Their dogs paddled to safety behind them.
"It was like a dream," said William Robinson, while his sister shivered in a blanket at a shelter at a Baptist church in Orange.
A convoy of search-and-rescue teams from Texas and California drove into Galveston - where the storm came ashore at 3:10 a.m. EDT after bulldozers cleared away mountains of debris. Interstate 45, the only road onto the island, was littered with overturned yachts, dead pelicans and debris from homes and docks.
Homes and other buildings in Galveston and homes burned unattended during the height of Ike's fury; 17 collapsed because crews couldn't get to them to douse the flames. There was no water or electricity on the island, and the main hospital, the University of Texas Medical Branch, flew critically ill patients to other medical center.
As they waited to return home, some evacuees were having a difficult time dealing with the uncertainty surrounding their homes and communities, reports CBS News correspondent Mark Strassman. At a shelter in Austin, Trisha Medina was losing it.
"I don't want my house gone," she said. "I like my house. It's not the best house but it's mine."
Volunteer Louis Blaze, who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina three years ago, had advice for the evacuees.
"I would tell them to let the system work for you, not against you," he said. "I mean it takes time."
President Bush declared a major disaster in his home state of Texas and ordered immediate federal aid.
In downtown Houston, shattered glass rained down on the streets below the JPMorgan Chase Tower, the state's tallest building at 75 stories. Trees were uprooted in the streets, road signs mangled by wind.