HOUSTON - Thousands of victims of Hurricane Ike settled in at shelters for what could be weeks, and others waited wearily in line for food, water, ice and gasoline Monday as it became increasingly clear the disaster along the Texas coast would be measured not by its death toll but by the misery it spread.
Almost three days after the storm steamrolled the coast, the extent of the damage was still coming into focus, with rescue teams finally reaching some of the hardest-hit and most inaccessible places, including Bolivar Peninsula, a resort on Galveston Bay where entire neighborhoods were obliterated. Homes were wiped from foundations and stilts jutted up from the sand — but their occupants were living, buoying the spirits of rescue crews.
While the number of confirmed deaths was still remarkably low — most of the 39 deaths blamed on Ike were outside of Texas — the distress was considerable.
Nearly 37,000 people were in shelters, and there was no word on when those living in the most devastated towns, such as Galveston, might return. An estimated 2.2 million people in Texas alone remained without power. Many service stations had no gasoline, or no electricity to pump it. With no running water, some residents were dumping toilet waste directly into the sewers. Major highways were still under water.
Victims grew irritable as they waited for food and water. Some relief stations ran out of supplies, leaving thousands hungry and panicked.
Lines of cars stretched two hours or longer at Texas Southern University for packages of bottled water and bags of ice, the only supplies on hand until three 18-wheelers showed up around noon. Cheers broke out when it was announced there were boxes with chili, a small bag of Frito chips and a cookie.
"Why didn't they call for volunteers when they knew this was going to hit?" grumbled Irene Makris, who waited in line but was told to drive to a station in another part of Houston, closer to her neighborhood. "This is bull."
Snapshots of damage were emerging everywhere: In Galveston, oil coated the water and beaches with a sheen, and residents were ordered off the beach. Dozens of burial vaults popped up out of the soggy ground, many disgorging their coffins. Several came to rest against a chain-link fence choked with garbage and trinkets left behind by mourners.
Galveston officials guessed it would be months before the island could reopen, and warned that mosquito-borne diseases could begin to spread. Cows that had escaped flooded pastures wandered around a shattered neighborhood. An elderly man was airlifted to a hospital, his body covered with hundreds of mosquito bites after his splintered home was swarmed.
"Galveston can no longer safely accommodate its population," City Manager Steve LeBlanc said. "Quite frankly, we are reaching a health crisis for people who remain on the island."
There were also signs of progress. Houston assistant fire chief Rick Flanagan said emergency calls dropped dramatically Monday afternoon. Houston mayor Bill White rescinded a mandate to boil water, citing tests that found no widespread contamination. White also said residents of the Clear Lake area, which was under a mandatory evacuation order, could safely return home.
In San Antonio and Austin, thousands streamed into 284 shelters set up by the state. As local officials sternly warned it wasn't safe to come home, many wondered how long they would be there, how they would pay for meals, and what was happening to their families.
More than 1,300 people, who had spent several nights at Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center, complained that they could not get information about how to find food and clean clothes.
Michael Stevenson, 37, said that at one shelter, he had barely eaten. "They give you a little cup of water every four hours. They feed us one peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We were in there for about 18 hours before we could go outside and get some air," he said.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry urged people to be patient, calling rescue workers "heroes" who were doing their best to help their neighbors.
"Here are the facts: You never are going to get ice and water into an area that's been impacted like this hurricane," Perry said after touring damaged towns. "It's just not going to get in fast enough. I know there are a lot of frustrated people out there."
At a shopping center in Houston, honking motorists in a line of cars stretching for more than a mile advanced quickly to the front, as if in a fast food drive-in, as some 15 Texas National Guardsmen rushed to load crates of food, ice, drinks and other non-perishable supplies into the trunks of the autos.
"Let's go, let's go, let's go!" guardsmen barked at motorists in blunt military fashion, rushing to fill their cars and move the line of cars quickly.
Thenesa Humphrey, 36, waited in her SUV with her husband and four teenage children for supplies. She said that she didn't know what they were handing out but that they would take anything — they hadn't had any supplies for days, and they were hungry.
"We're just taking whatever they give us. It don't matter," Humphrey said after her home was hit by low water pressure. "No electricity, no gas, no water pressure, no money. We don't know when we are going to get anything."
At Texas Southern, LaChandra Noel, 33, came to the line pushing her 11-year-old deaf and blind daughter in a wheelchair. Others in line let Noel go to the front and get water and ice ahead of them.
Shauna Leigh, 20, arrived at a San Antonio shelter on Friday after fleeing Galveston with her mother and 2-month-old baby, Thomas. She stood outside the shelter Monday, trying to get away from the crowds and grab a bit of fresh air as Thomas lay quietly in his carriage, wrapped in a Pooh Bear top and a baby blue blanket dotted with footballs.
"I don't think I can stay here that long. There's just so many people and there's sick people, too, and I have my son. I just don't want to make this a permanent home," Shauna said, extending the sun shade of the carriage to protect her little boy's face.
Search-and-rescue teams worried that the worst devastation has yet to be found.
In Texas, rescue crews were still going door-to-door in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, looking for the dead and alive, and the days after the storm were proving to be riddled with their own dangers. At least three people were found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning after using generators.
A team of 115 searchers flew into Bolivar Peninsula, the last unexplored part of the Texas coast, and feared they would find more dead. They saw homes that were splintered or completely washed away in the beachfront community that is home to about 30,000 people in the peak summer season. But after covering almost all of the western end of the peninsula by dusk, officials said they had found no dead.
Gilchrist, a town on the peninsula, "is almost completely gone. Like somebody took a razor and went pffft," said Aaron Ramon Reed, spokesman for Texas Parks & Wildlife.
On High Island, a community of about 500 on the barrier island, houses were torn off their foundations, the smell of oil from tanks in surrounding marshfields hung heavy in the air. The road and shoreline were strewn with dozens of stranded cars, La-Z-Boy recliners, kitchen sinks and a child's bed in the shape of a car. Miraculously, the houses where people stayed were somehow standing, as if the storm chose to destroy only the empty ones.
"We really credit God with the fact that all the houses destroyed were empty," said Marty Boddie, the minister of St. Matthew's United Methodist Church. "We just thank Him for that."
Associated Press Writers Eileen Sullivan in Washington, Pauline Arrillaga in San Antonio, Michael Kunzelman and Allen G. Breed in Orange, Jay Root in Austin, Christopher Sherman and Jon Gambrell in Galveston, Monica Rohr in Houston and April Castro in Austin contributed to this report.