Galveston officials begin to restrict media access

GALVESTON — Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas on Monday ordered all city employees not to talk to news reporters. She did not say when that order would be lifted.

Thomas and City Manager Steve LeBlanc will be the only officials allowed to talk to reporters.

City spokeswoman Mary Jo Naschke vehemently denied the city was trying to clamp down on news coverage.

She said emergency personnel and city employees were too busy to talk to reporters. Naschke also said the city had been accommodating news reporters by allowing them access to the island when others weren’t allowed, giving them escorted rides to damaged areas and allowing them to move about outside during a curfew.

But at a noon press conference on Monday, Thomas and LeBlanc talked for less than 30 minutes and refused to answer any more than five questions. Thomas said she would try to hold another press conference Tuesday.

Daily News reporters who tried to speak to city employees at rescue sites were denied information and told no one was authorized to talk to them except for the mayor and city manager.

“It’s the worst thing the city could do. Those who will suffer most are evacuees,” Publisher Dolph Tillotson said in statement via text message from the island. “The media will have to turn to other sources that might be less reliable. I can’t imagine a dumber move under these extreme circumstances.”

Before the press conference started Monday, LeBlanc asked reporters whether he could go off the record. Some television crews agreed and turned their cameras off. LeBlanc then asked news crews to urge their bosses and managers to show more coverage of the island on television because evacuees didn’t care about what was happening in Houston.

All reporters who were staying at the city’s emergency operations center, stationed at the San Luis Hotel, were asked to leave Monday. San Luis hotel owner Tilman Fertitta was housing reporters at the nearby Hilton Hotel, which he also owns.

Reporters would be allowed on the island, but only if they had proper identification, Thomas said. She didn’t clarify what that meant.

Reporters were also forbidden from visiting areas on the far West End of FM 3005, Thomas said. She did not explain why.

Strains mounting in shelters for Ike evacuees

SAN ANTONIO (AP) – As search-and-rescue continued along a storm-ravaged coastline, thousands of evacuees converged Monday on emergency shelters all across Texas with all the belongings they could carry and an unanswerable question: What now?

More than 37,000 people left homeless by Hurricane Ike have arrived at makeshift shelters throughout the state, and officials said even more were on the way. The strain was beginning to show.

Some shelters were overcrowded, food and water scarce, and there were isolated reports of fights and arrests. State officials worried that evacuees would return home too early to hard-hit areas of Southeast Texas, where first responders and emergency workers are already overwhelmed and overworked.

“Stay where you are,” Gov. Rick Perry urged evacuees during a news conference in Orange.

“The absolute worst thing that could happen is for people who are in areas that have electricity, that have fuel, that have water, to come back into these areas and put additional strain on the structure that we have in place,” he said.

But even as some evacuees appeared to be ignoring those pleas, others were still coming by bus from Galveston, Houston and other battered cities to nearly 300 emergency shelters set up across the state.

Pat Schmidt, 57, and her 16-year-old daughter, Marilea, were hanging out by the curb outside of the mammoth warehouse-shelter at Port San Antonio. On the ground beside them were just four bags: A small suitcase, two carry-ons and a Pier 1 shopping bag that held dirty shoes and half-empty water bottles.

They arrived on one of the many buses from Galveston at 6 a.m. Monday. The 245-mile trip from the island took more than 11 hours, delayed when other buses in their caravan broken down along the way.

“We went in and they told us they serve breakfast at 8 a.m., better get in line early,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt and her daughter plan to stay with her sister-in-law in Austin, doing what they can to keep their minds off of the destruction back home. Their immediate plans meant meeting basic needs: A shower—they haven’t had one since Wednesday—sleep, then shopping for some extra clothes. Beyond that, Schmidt couldn’t say.

“They told us there’d be no power, no electricity for at least two weeks. Whenever they say we can come back, my sister-in-law is going to drive us back. But this is where we are today,” she said.

“I’ll cook to earn my board. We’ll just hang out. I don’t want to watch anymore pictures of Galveston,” said Schmidt, nodding toward the entrance to the shelter. “Everyone in there was watching it, but I just can’t. Not anymore. It’s kind of like a dream that you’re in and you know you’re going to wake up. But instead of saying, `Oh, it was just a dream.’ It wasn’t.”

In Austin, more than half of the 6,200 evacuees who sought shelter from Ike have since left, but authorities couldn’t say for sure where they went. Some returned to coastal areas that were spared the brunt of Ike’s destruction. Others were staying with family and friends, but it was impossible to say how many, said Sara Hartley, emergency operations spokeswoman for the city.

Some who arrived at shelters last week ahead of the storm said the strain had worsened with the arrival of the latest wave of evacuees, many of whom chose to ride out Ike and disregarded earlier evacuation efforts.

Shauna Leigh, 20, got to the San Antonio shelter on Friday after fleeing Galveston with her mother, Rena, and 2-month-old baby, Thomas. “There wasn’t hardly anyone in there. It was quiet, but as time progressed, more people came,” she said, as her mother chimed in: “Longer breakfast line. Longer lunch line. Longer dinner line.”

Her father, Ronald, rejoined the family Monday morning, after making the drive from East Texas. They’d like to stay with relatives, but many of them live in Houston or elsewhere along the coast and are still without power.

“Right now we’re just waiting it out, seeing what happens. 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,” she said. “I just don’t want to make this a permanent home.”

At one overcrowded East Texas shelter, many of the 1,600 evacuees were moved on Sunday to other locations near Fort Worth after tempers flared and fights broke out among evacuees housed in an abandoned Wal-Mart.

The building, pressed into service because several shelters used during Hurricane Gustav weren’t available, has minimal bathroom facilities, requiring portable toilets, showers and wash basins to be placed in the parking lot.

Police said seven people were arrested after incidents Saturday and Sunday.

“You get 1,600 people on cots in an old Wal-Mart, things like that are bound to happen,” said Tyler police chief Gary Swindle.

Nicholas Harris, 23, of Beaumont, among the 800 evacuees relocated Sunday night, was happy to be out of Tyler.

“We was all on top of each other, and everybody had to fend for themselves,” said Harris, who was moved to a shelter at the First Baptist Church in Watauga. “It’s been real hard, but God’s going to take care of us.”

Texas rushes Ike relief as health crisis looms

GALVESTON, Texas (Reuters) – Texas officials warned of a health crisis on Monday and urged thousands of people to leave Galveston, where relief supplies were scarce for hungry, exhausted residents of the island city ravaged by Hurricane Ike.

In Houston, millions struggled to cope without power in the U.S. energy hub.

About 2,000 people have been plucked from flooded areas by helicopters and boats in the largest rescue effort in the state’s history as searchers scoured battered communities along the coast and Galveston Bay.

Galveston, a city of 60,000, was decimated when the hurricane made landfall there on Saturday morning and 15,000-20,000 people remained in quickly degrading conditions.

“There’s nothing to come here for,” Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas told residents still on the island. “Please leave.”

She called in a cruise ship to house recovery teams, and the city was bringing in a refrigerated mobile morgue.

“We cannot accommodate people who are getting sick,” said Galveston City Manager Steven LeBlanc. “You have the potential for a health crisis.”

More than 4 million people, several oil refineries and many businesses and gas stations around Houston remained without power. Government agencies will distribute ice, water and packaged meals from tractor-trailers.

Hurricane Ike triples in size!

*Be careful, everyone…you are in my thoughts.*

Sept. 11 (Bloomberg) — Highways in Texas were jammed as coastal residents fled Hurricane Ike, which tripled in size in the central Gulf of Mexico and threatened the 5.6 million people of the Houston area.

The system’s strongest winds extend as far as 115 miles (185 kilometers) from the eye, compared with 35 miles yesterday, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said today. Ike’s winds cover an area larger than that of Katrina, the storm that devastated New Orleans in 2005, Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at private forecaster Weather Underground Inc., said.

“The total amount of energy is more powerful than Katrina, so we could be seeing a storm surge that could rival Katrina,” Masters said. Ike is so big “the location doesn’t matter much; it is going to inundate a huge part of the Texas coast.”

Galveston, parts of southern Houston and areas south of the city and near the Texas coast were under a mandatory evacuation order that started at noon today. Hurricane Ike is following a track similar to the 1900 Galveston hurricane that killed 8,000 people, the deadliest storm in U.S. history.

The storm is a Category 2 hurricane with sustained winds of 100 mph, up from 80 mph yesterday, the center said in an advisory at 7 p.m. Houston time.

Ike’s center was 370 miles east-southeast of Galveston and moving west-northwest at 12 mph, with landfall south of Galveston forecast for early Sept. 13. Because of its size, Ike will be felt along the Texas coast long before landfall.

Packing Up

Three houses away from Galveston Bay in LaPorte, Jamie and April Ybarra packed their two children, two dogs and cat into a Chevy sports utility vehicle and prepared to leave.

“I think the call for evacuation came a little late,” Jamie Ybarra, a 32-year-old safety coordinator, said. “You hear the roads are crowded; you hear people are losing their cool.”

This is the third time the family has evacuated in three years, April Ybarra said. And “we may not be coming back here for awhile.”

Ike’s central pressure is more like that associated with a Category 3 or 4 storm, Masters said.

“It is a massive storm; it is impacting in terms of its scope 40 percent of the Gulf,” said Michael Chertoff, U.S. secretary of Homeland Security, in a conference call from Washington. “The most important message I can send is, do not take this storm lightly. This is not a storm to gamble with. It is large and powerful and carries a lot of water with it.”

The U.S. weather center’s forecasters said Ike may strengthen to at least a major hurricane with Category 3 intensity, meaning sustained winds of at least 111 mph, before landfall. Other forecasters predict Ike may become a Category 4 storm, the second-strongest on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, packing winds from 131 to 155 mph.

Oil Fields

The storm is forecast to sweep through the center of the Gulf, missing the offshore Louisiana oil and natural gas fields. The Gulf is home to about a quarter of U.S. oil production.

Even so, about 96 percent of all oil production in the Gulf has been shut in along with 73.1 percent of natural gas plants, according to the Minerals Management Service, a bureau of the Interior Department. Some plants have been closed since Hurricane Gustav struck Louisiana last week.

Exxon Mobil Corp.’s Baytown facility, 17 miles east of Houston, is the country’s biggest, with a capacity of 586,000 barrels a day. The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, which is the largest U.S. oil-import terminal and handles 13 percent of imports, said it closed marine operations because of Ike.

Dow Chemical Co., the largest U.S. chemical maker, and competitors such as DuPont Co., LyondellBassell Industries and Texas Petrochemicals Inc. are closing plants in the Houston area. The Texas Gulf Coast produces two-thirds of the nation’s ethylene, used in products from plastic bags to auto parts.

Declaring Emergency

President George W. Bush declared an emergency for Texas, his home state, and Governor Rick Perry readied 1,350 buses to evacuate residents in preparation for Ike’s landfall. As many as 7,500 Texas National Guard members are on standby.

Houston’s population is 2.2 million, making it the fourth- biggest U.S. city, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and its metropolitan area, with a population of 5.6 million, is the sixth-largest in the U.S.

The Houston Texans pushed back their National Football League home-opener against the Baltimore Ravens by a day because of Hurricane Ike, while the Astros postponed two games ahead of the storm’s arrival.

Officials in Harris, Brazoria, Chambers, Matagorda and Galveston counties ordered about 564,063 people to leave homes that are now in Ike’s path. Television news reports showed miles-long traffic jams in the area.

`Follow Instructions’

“My message to Texans in the projected impact area is this: finish your preparations because Ike is dangerous and he’s on his way,” Perry said in a statement. “If your local officials tell you to evacuate, follow their instructions.”

Ernest Baddeaux, a 66-year-old welder who lives a half- block from Galveston Bay in La Porte, said he wasn’t going to heed the mandatory evacuation.

“The officials and media tell you to evacuate but they don’t necessarily tell you where or how you’re going to pay for it,” he said as hammered plywood over his windows.

Baddeaux said he was reasonably confident his house, one of the few in the neighborhood raised on piers, would protect him. Hurricane Alicia, which hit the Houston area in 1983, brought a 12-foot storm surge that didn’t reach his property.

“I think one other family on the street is staying, too,” he said, adding that he has an electric generator, a gasoline supply and enough food and water to last for weeks.

Storm Surge

Jim Rouiller, a meteorologist with Planalytics Inc. in Wayne, Pennsylvania, said he’s worried about storm surge damage around Galveston Bay, on the coast southeast of Houston, which may be in the top right quadrant of the storm field where rains and winds are most powerful.

Galveston’s seawall is 17 feet high and the forecast storm surge is 20 feet high.

“If that’s breached, a whole refinery complex goes under water,” Rouiller said.

Some parts of the Texas-Louisiana coast may get as much as 15 inches of rain, the hurricane center said.

Ike could inflict between $5 billion and $15 billion of insured damage depending on how much it intensifies, said Steve Smith, atmospheric physicist for the Carvill reinsurance broker.

Union Pacific Corp. and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., the two biggest U.S. railroads, halted some Texas trains in preparation for Ike, while Amtrak stopped passenger service in parts of Texas.

Operations in Houston and nearby Galveston were shutting down or already idled, Union Pacific and Burlington Northern said today. Kansas City Southern, the fifth-largest railroad, also suspended traffic headed for that region along the Gulf of Mexico.

NASA’s Johnson Space Center heeded the evacuation order and prepared to shut its 1,600-acre base in Houston that houses Mission Control and the training ground for astronauts.

Galveston, part of Houston evacuated ahead of Ike

Special-needs residents in the city of Houston and Harris County will begin evacuating Thursday morning as Hurricane Ike headed for the Texas coast, officials said.

A mandatory evacuation for residents in surrounding low-lying areas of Houston will begin Thursday afternoon, officials said.

“We strongly urge you to evacuate before tomorrow,” said Judge Ed Emmett, Harris County’s chief executive officer, at a news conference Thursday with Houston Mayor Bill White.

Government offices and schools will be closed Friday in Houston in anticipation of the hurricane. Officials are still deciding whether to put a contraflow system in place, or reverse highway lanes to make them one way to help with evacuations, Emmett said.

Seven other counties have begun partial or full evacuations.

Forecasters said the storm could slam into the Texas coast — south of Galveston — as a powerful Category 3 storm late Friday or early Saturday. Ike’s storm surges slam Pensacola, Florida

Because of the size of the storm, forecasters warned weather in areas along the Texas coast could be dangerous even before Ike hits. Watch how the hurricane has grown in size »

Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas issued a mandatory evacuation order for the entire Galveston Island. No shelters will be open, according to the city’s Web site.

At 11 a.m. ET Thursday, Ike — now a Category 2 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale of 1 to 5 in strength — was heading toward the northwestern Gulf of Mexico, the National Hurricane Center said.

Ike was moving west-northwest near 10 mph; that motion should continue over the central and western Gulf of Mexico on Thursday and Friday, the hurricane center said. Track the storm »

At 11 a.m., Ike had top sustained winds near 100 mph, and was about 580 miles east of Corpus Christi, Texas, and 470 miles east-southeast of Galveston.

Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 115 miles from the center, the hurricane center said, and tropical storm-force winds extended outward up to 275 miles. ‘I’ve never seen the water up that high’

Aransas County has ordered a mandatory evacuation of all nonessential government employees.

In Rockport, special-needs residents gathered at the Live Oak Elementary School for the evacuation.

“All my family is up north,” James Beaird, who has Type 2 diabetes, told CNN affiliate KIII-TV in Corpus Christi. “I’m glad they pick up an old cripple dude, like me, and get me somewhere.”

Farther up the Gulf Coast and closer to where the National Hurricane Center predicts a direct hit, Brazoria County ordered a mandatory evacuation to begin at 8 a.m. CT (9 a.m. ET) Thursday. Some other Texas localities have ordered mandatory evacuations, while others have left the decision to depart up to residents.

“One of the things that the public has to understand if they decide to stay, there will be a period of time during this storm when they will absolutely be on their own,” Brazoria County Sheriff Charles Wagner said.

“There will be no medical services; there will be no fire department; there will be no law enforcement, groceries, gasoline, drugs, electricity.”

Some Brazoria County residents said they didn’t want to leave but realized it was in their best interest to do so.

“You don’t have a choice when you have kids,” Deborah Davis of Freeport told CNN affiliate KPRC-TV in Houston.

Diana Rangel, who also lives in Freeport, filled up her car with gas Wednesday at a convenience store overrun with other vehicles waiting in line, CNN affiliate KHOU-TV in Houston reported.

“We don’t want to get stuck out here [in floodwaters],” Rangel told KHOU.

In Matagorda County, southwest of Galveston, officials ordered a mandatory evacuation for all areas except the cities of Bay City and Van Vleck. The evacuation must be completed by at 6 p.m. (7 p.m. ET) Thursday.

A hurricane warning has been issued for the northwestern Gulf Coast, from Morgan City, Louisiana, to Baffin Bay, Texas. Hurricane conditions could reach the coast within the warning area by late Friday. A hurricane watch is in effect from south of Baffin Bay to Port Mansfield, Texas.

Forecasters issued a tropical storm warning from south of Baffin Bay to Port Mansfield. A tropical storm warning also is in effect from east of Morgan City to the Mississippi-Alabama border, including New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry put 7,500 National Guard members on standby and issued a disaster declaration for 88 counties.

President Bush declared an emergency, making federal funds available for the state to prepare for the storm.

Corpus Christi officials also began the evacuation process for residents with special needs, supplying buses to transport them out of town.

Voluntary evacuations were issued in San Patricio and Victoria counties and parts of Jackson County, according to the governor’s office.

More than 1,300 inmates from the Texas Correctional Institutions Division’s Stevenson Unit in Cuero were being evacuated to facilities in Beeville and Kenedy, Perry’s office said, and 597 were transferred from the substance abuse Glossbrenner Unit in San Diego, in south Texas, to Dilley.

Naval air stations in Texas also began to prepare for Hurricane Ike’s expected arrival by moving aircrafts.

Evacuations appeared to have saved lives in Cuba when Ike slammed into the island. Four deaths were reported from the storm, according to the Cuban government. The Cuban Civil Defense brought buses or trucks to take people to shelters.

The United States, which provided $100,000 in emergency aid to communist-run Cuba through private aid agencies after Hurricane Gustav hit the island August 30, said that it was considering additional emergency aid for Cuba because of Ike.

The storm pounded Grand Turk Island in the Turks and Caicos chain, putting a strain on the British territory’s tourism industry.
Flooding and rains from Ike’s outer bands have been blamed for 70 deaths in Haiti.

Ike gains strength over Gulf, aims for Texas

HAVANA (AP) — Hurricane Ike grew stronger as it barreled across the warm, energizing waters of the Gulf of Mexico Wednesday toward the Texas coast after crashing through Cuba’s tobacco country and toppling aging Havana buildings.

Forecasters said the Category 1 storm could grow into a major Category 3 storm before slamming into Texas or northern Mexico on Saturday.

Ike has already killed at least 80 people in the Caribbean, and Texas put 7,500 National Guard members on standby and urged coastal residents to stock up on supplies.

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management agency still was uncertain about the timing of evacuations along the coast.

Cuban state television said some 2.6 million people — nearly a fourth of the island’s population — sought refuge from Ike, which killed four people and shredded hundreds of homes as it swept across the country. Power was still spotty in Havana on Wednesday morning.

On Havana’s Malecon coastal highway, crews tried to rescue an elderly man from beneath a pile of rubble outside his apartment building.

Firefighter Lt. Col. Rolando Menendez said the man, still believed to be alive, returned to his seaside home without official approval and a concrete piece of the building’s fourth floor slipped loose and fell on him.

As it left Cuba, Hurricane Ike delivered a punishing blow to towns such as Los Palacios, which already suffered a direct hit from a Category-4 Hurricane Gustav on Aug. 30.

In a poor neighborhood along the train tracks, the combined fury of Ike and Gustav left nearly two-thirds of the wooden homes leveled or without roofs.

“The first one left me something, but this one left me nothing,” said Olga Atiaga, a 53-year-old housewife. Gustav obliterated her roof and some walls. Then Ike blew away a mattress and smashed the kitchen sink.

“I don’t even have anything to sleep on,” she said.

Odalis Cruz, a 45-year-old housing inspector, said she evacuated to a shelter in the town’s rice mill when it became clear Ike was following Gustav’s path through Pinar del Rio, the westernmost province where Cuba produces tobacco used in its famous cigars.

She surveyed the damage to her home Tuesday.

“We repaired the roof two days ago and this one took the new one,” she said. “I’m ready to move to Canada! We have spent eight days drying out things, cleaning everything, sleeping on the floor, and now we are hit again.”

Gustav damaged at least 100,000 homes but didn’t kill anyone because of massive evacuations. Cubans were ordered to evacuate for Ike as well, with those in low-lying or wooden homes seeking safety with friends or relatives in sturdier structures. Others were taken to government shelters.

State television said two men were killed removing an antenna from a roof, a woman died when her home collapsed and a man was killed by a falling tree.

Evacuations are not mandatory except for pregnant women and small children, but in an authoritarian state, few people ignore the government’s advice.

In Havana, towering waves broke over the seaside Malecon promenade as downpours soaked historic but crumbling buildings in the capital’s picturesque older areas. Some of the most dilapidated structures collapsed, including four houses on a single block.

Police told 21-year-old Niyel Rodriguez she had to move to a shelter with her 19-day-old daughter Chanel. She huddled Tuesday with 109 expectant and new mothers and their children in a wing of an Old Havana maternity hospital.

“They came looking for me yesterday and brought me here in a patrol car,” Rodriguez said. “I probably would have been scared to stay at home with my little one, and here they take good care of us.”

Elsewhere in Cuba, officials evacuated about 10,000 tourists from vulnerable seaside hotels, mostly from Varadero beach, east of Havana.

Ike’s possible threat to Gulf oil installations didn’t keep crude oil prices from dipping to US$102.40 a barrel in Wednesday morning trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Mexican officials warned that unrelated heavy rains in the northern part of the country had caused more than a dozen dams to reach capacity or spill over. If Ike brings more rain to the area, evacuations may be needed.

Ike was centered about 225 miles (365 kilometers) west-southwest of Key West, Florida, and about 430 miles (695 kilometers) southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River late Wednesday morning.

It was generally moving northwest at 8 mph (13 kph). Maximum sustained winds remained near 90 mph (150 kph), still at Category 1 storm.

Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Lowell weakened to a tropical depression off Mexico’s Pacific coast and it was expected to move across the Baja California Peninsula Wednesday night or Thursday morning. It had maximum sustained of near 35 mph (55 kph).