Galveston Still Off-Limits To Residents

A political brawl has broken out on the Texas island as residents push to return to their homes after Hurricane Ike. Officials say there's no way to accommodate them without power and services.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen. Galveston, Texas has descended into what the mayor there calls third-world-country status. After this coastal city was slammed by Hurricane Ike last Friday, there are few good choices. Services aren't back up and running there just yet, so officials are weary of letting people come back to Galveston. But if they don't let them return, well then, residents get furious. As NPR's John Burnett reports, such is life on the Gulf Coast in the time of super storms.

JOHN BURNETT: Emergency crews have begun Herculean job of cleaning the streets, reconnecting the power, fixing the water treatment system, but only begun. At the end of yesterday's daily news conference, Galveston City Councilwoman Susan Fennewald walked up to the microphones.

Councilwoman SUSAN FENNEWALD (Galveston, Texas): We won't be able to let large numbers of people on the island until at least we get the water treatment plant up. I mean, face it, you cannot flush the toilet. So, and that's where the health issues come in, but because we don't have sewer, you cannot come back for a long stay on the island.

BURNETT: It sounds reasonable, but the 45,000 or so people who remain evacuated from this barrier island are desperate to return. Many want to start cleaning out their houses and businesses before the mold starts to grow.

David Stenouski (ph) is a financial analyst who's about to stay put with his wife, Jacquelyn (ph), a photographer, in the century old house they're renting on Avenue P. He says they have food and water to last them for a couple of weeks, and he doesn't like the city telling residents they either have to leave or they can't come back.

Mr. DAVID STENOUSKI (Resident, Galveston, Texas): It's treating the residents or the citizens as a problem or an annoyance or an inconvenience rather than the resource, and they work for us, and that's not the attitude we're getting.

BURNETT: But the city is in a quandary. On the one hand, it wants to provide for its people who rode out the storm on the island, give them the food, water, and ice they need. On the other hand, says Major Roger Frank of the Texas Army National Guard...

Major ROGER FRANK (Texas Army National Guard): When they want us to do an evacuation, we can't really be providing support, too. So they came up with a compromise and said, we'll do a voluntary evacuation, and we'll keep feeding you.

BURNETT: So emergency crews continue to feed people while the city tells them it's time to leave. There are official distribution points for food, and then there's the Salvation Army truck that lumbers down the debris littered streets every evening at suppertime.

Unidentified Man #1: Call them all out. We've got food.

BURNETT: Four residents in the Waldorf Apartments, a brick tenement house on Rosenberg Avenue, sidle up to the bean wagon.

Unidentified Man #2: More please.

Unidentified Man #3: More water?

Unidentified Man #2: Oh, no.

Unidentified Man #3: You sure?

BURNETT: Inside the truck, a woman with a brilliant smile and Nancy stenciled on her apron ladles food onto foam plates.

Ms. NANCY (Resident, Galveston, Texas): We have corn. We have green beans. We have chicken, and it looks delicious.

Unidentified Man #4: It's a hot meal, and it's what everybody wants.

BURNETT: An elderly woman in stretch pants named Mickie Laflore (ph) holds two plates of food for her and her son.

Ms. MICKEY LAFLORE (Resident, Galveston, Texas): I'm not leaving this island, honey. I'm living here now. This is my home.

BURNETT: Ms. Laflore seems remarkably comfortable and contented in her darkened apartment, one of the estimated 15,000 people here who remained in the city.

Ms. LAFLORE: My water's on, and they said our power should be on in the next two or three days.

(Soundbite of a truck)

Ms. LAFLORE: Baby, I was raised in the country in Louisiana, where we had coal oil lamps. I can make it.

BURNETT: Galveston officials say it will be 2 to 4 weeks before the island is habitable again, but there's progress. Late last night, a little after 8.00 p.m., the lights blinked on in an eight block area on the east end of the island.

A supermarket sign, a bank time and temperature sign, a Whataburger, and a fire station suddenly lit up. The firemen inside were elated.

Unidentified Man #5: I couldn't believe it. I was like, is that lights? Is that Chilis? Chilis lit up? All right, that's great, man. We've got A/C now, and no more living in the heat, man.

BURNETT: The illumination was the work of a crew from CenterPoint Energy that labored most of the day to replace a snapped pole and string new lines.

Mr. JOHN CURTS (Lineman, CenterPoint Energy): It's just a slow, tedious process.

Mr. JOHN THEME (Lineman, CenterPoint Energy): We feel good about getting the lights on before we go home, you know. I mean, that's good.

BURNETT: John Curts (ph) and John Theme (ph) are linemen for the company.

Mr. CURTS: One thing I'd like to say, though, all the people you hear on the news at night complaining, I haven't seen my family since the storm hit, and I'm out here trying to get all the lights on.

BURNETT: So let us take a moment to give thanks for the men and women who turn on the lights. John Burnett, NPR News, Galveston.

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