Bush views Ike damage on Gulf Coast
Urges evacuees to use caution; Seeks donations for relief groups
GALVESTON, Texas - President Bush got a firsthand look yesterday at the fury that Hurricane Ike unleashed on the Gulf Coast, and was greeted by a virtual ghost town here where it made landfall. He urged frustrated storm evacuees to keep it that way until local officials say it is safe to return.
"I know a lot of people are anxious to get back in," Bush said. "I urge you to listen to state and local authorities before you come back."
Ike dumped heavy rains on parts of Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri after slamming ashore in Texas over the weekend. It knocked out power to more than 2 million homes and businesses across the Midwest, spawned a tornado in Arkansas, and blew high winds through Ohio. The devastating rain and wind in the nation's midsection brought the death toll from Ike to at least 47 in 10 states from the Gulf Coast to the upper Ohio Valley.
In light of the continuing need from Ike and other storms in this year's busy hurricane season, Bush pleaded for donations from the public to relief organizations like the American Red Cross.
"I hope the country does not have disaster fatigue," he said.
Many thousands of displaced residents face weeks or months in shelters, and Bush assured them personally and publicly that the federal government would reimburse them for their costs, up to 30 days, of interim housing. Federal Emergency Management Agency Director David Paulison, who traveled with Bush, said the Bush administration was working hard to avoid a scenario like when people moved out of New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and never returned. He said a state-led task force would work to place evacuees in motels and hotels, apartments and duplexes.
"It's not just kind of ad hoc, like it was with Katrina," he said. "If we have to use mobile homes, that will be a state call, we have them available."
The White House also announced yesterday that the federal government will pick up all the costs of debris removal in Texas for a two-week period starting last Saturday, the day the storm hit. This waives the state's required cost-share of 25 percent during that period. This waiver does not apply to Louisiana.
Bush spoke to reporters in Houston, his first stop on a trip through parts of Texas most battered by Ike. The trip lasted less than three hours and marked the third time in two weeks that the president has traveled to the Gulf Coast for a hurricane.
While flying by helicopter from Houston to much harder-hit Galveston, Bush got an aerial tour of the damage. He saw the remains of the resort barrier island of Bolivar Peninsula, where there were flattened houses, flooded fields, and bare foundations where houses once stood. Roads and beaches were strewn with debris. Homes that weathered the storm stood next to ones completely washed away. From the air, three sections of the same house that Ike tore asunder resembled children's blocks tumbled into a muddy field.
Ike missed the largest concentrations of oil and gas refineries in the region. But at least 14 Texas refineries closed before the storm made landfall, removing more than 20 percent of the nation's petroleum refining capacity and pushing gasoline prices even higher. From his helicopter, Bush could see scores of ships full of crude waiting off the coast for a green light to deliver to Texas refineries.
While damage to the US refining industry was less than anticipated, Kevin Kolevar, assistant secretary for electricity delivery and energy reliability at the Energy Department, told reporters that it will take a week to 10 days for even the undamaged facilities to be restarted, if there is power.
Paulison said an estimated 70 percent of Houston should have power by the end of the week, but Galveston will not fare as well.
"Galveston is going to have a tough time," Paulison said. "That's heavy devastation there. . . . It's going to be a longer-term fix than getting Houston back up."
With the rescue phase winding down, emergency workers were trying to provide blankets, ice, and tarps to victims.
"I know there are some shortages, but thus far the demand has been met," said Bush, whose administration lost credibility with its slow response to Hurricane Katrina. "We'll continue to monitor the situation to make sure that people are taken care of."
On the ground in Galveston, Bush held hands with Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas as they walked down a street where bushes were covered with black roofing paper. "They've got a great mayor and they're working hard," Bush shouted at reporters as he walked back to the presidential helicopter.
Bush's tour of the damage took the place of a fund-raising swing he had planned for the day through Topeka, Kan., and Fort Worth. Laura Bush performed those duties instead. Earlier this month, President Bush scrapped his planned opening-night speech at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, to fly instead to emergency command centers in Texas just as Hurricane Gustav hit. He returned to the region later that week to visit Louisiana, also socked by Gustav.