GALVESTON, Texas - Officials were stung by an ill-fated attempt to let residents and business owners "look and leave" their hurricane-battered city, which only created frustrating traffic jams for two days. Now, their message is clear: Stay away from Galveston.
There is talk of opening the island in pieces, but that plan is not yet ready. An attempt to let evacuees return home all at once quickly devolved into a logistical nightmare that left traffic backed up for 20 miles. That only added to the evidence that Galveston Island is far from ready to return to everyday life.
"We could not accommodate that many people at one time," city manager Steve LeBlanc said. "We were hoping to have more of a trickle of cars than a tidal wave."
It took only an hour for LeBlanc and others to realize that Tuesday's decision to reopen the island was a mistake. Traffic started to back up almost immediately as residents all over the state headed for the coast and clogged Interstate 45 — already teeming with critically needed utility workers, repair crews and police.
But the word that "look and leave" had ended almost as soon as it began didn't spread. After spending hours fuming in gridlocked traffic, hundreds were turned away Wednesday once they finally arrived at the only bridge onto the island.
Carlos Azucena, 47, tried three different times on Tuesday and Wednesday to get on the island, waiting in line for three hours before his final rejection. He didn't understand why utility workers and contractors could enter the island while he repeatedly was denied.
"I need to check out the house and need to clean it," he said. "Nobody helps — stupid police."
As Galveston persisted in trying to keep evacuated residents out, the city pressed the thousands who have been hunkered down since the storm hit to leave. There is a growing threat of disease, with the state health commissioner reporting cases of respiratory illnesses, minor traumas such as burns and falls, as well as stress and fatigue.
The University of Texas Medical Branch hospital won't be able to take patients for a month or more, forcing doctors to send the seriously injured by air to Houston or elsewhere for treatment.
Across Texas, 1.9 million are still without electricity. CenterPoint Energy said Galveston Island won't see a substantial restoration of service until early next week.
Ike's death toll in the U.S. stands at 51. Galveston County Medical Examiner Stephen Pustilnik confirmed the first death in nearby Brazoria County on Wednesday, bringing the death toll in the state to 18. And there are fears there are more victims yet to be found. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, bodies continued to turn up for more than a year.
"We don't know what's out there in the wilds," Pustilnik said. "Searchers weren't looking for bodies; they were looking for survivors."
State search and rescue teams have pulled out of Galveston after checking on almost 6,000 people and performing more than 3,500 rescues. Meanwhile, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol is still making roughly 100 checks a day on storm holdouts, working from tips called in by anxious relatives.
On his rounds Wednesday, lifeguard Marc Butler hit at least a half-dozen homes. At only one did he find who he was looking for.
"I'm not leaving without my cats, that's for damn sure," Lillie Scholky, 83, told Butler. Her nephew called looking for her from San Antonio. Her cell phone had run out of power, but she was fine. Still, Butler helped her find two bins in her flooded first floor to carry out her pets.
An exasperated Linda Rudd, 50, sat on the steps of Galveston Ball High School with her two small grandchildren and another small child. As she waited for a ride off the island to a shelter in San Antonio, she chatted with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff after he met with officials inside.
"I don't have anything here, anyway," she said. "Everything was destroyed."
Chertoff visited shelters in Galveston and Houston, and he planned trips to Beaumont and Port Arthur on Thursday. He greeted family members and shook hands with volunteers, but didn't offer any false comfort.
"For the next days and weeks, it is not going to be pleasant," he said. "To be out of your house is not pleasant. To clean up the destruction after a hurricane has hit (is not going to be pleasant)."