Hurricane Aid Problems Bring Michael Chertoff to Houston

Posted on September 17, 2008 by LCT Staff - Also by this author - About the author

NOTE: This Los Angeles Times article was sent out to Houston area operators by Joe Jordan, president of the Limousine Association of Houston.

HOUSTON — Amid mounting criticism that mistakes made by the Federal Emergency Management Agency caused thousands of area residents to be turned away from federal aid distribution points without supplies, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff is flying here this morning.

Chertoff told reporters that he knows the public is "extremely frustrated and everyone is at the mercy of what we can deliver. We have got to address the problems as quickly as possible," he said.

A scheduled meeting with local officials, and Chertoff's insistence, in comments to reporters, that he is "not afraid to kick someone in the rear" to correct the missteps, come after Houston Mayor Bill White and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett announced late Tuesday that they would take over how FEMA distributes the millions of liters of water and pounds of ice and food to the survivors of Hurricane Ike, many of whom are living without power.

While White and Emmett declined to be specific about what caused the delays, they opened 26 distribution centers, began ordering supply trucks to drive throughout the night to get goods into the city by daybreak, and consolidated other locations in order to make sure the food, water, ice and tarps needed to cover rooftops would be available to an increasingly tense public.

Adding to the region's woes, the Texas Attorney General's office said this week that it is looking into hundreds of complaints about price-gouging for gasoline, food and other supplies that have come in the wake of Ike slamming into the Gulf Coast early Saturday morning.

On Tuesday, thousands of residents sought to return to Galveston Island under a city-sanctioned "look and leave" period, but the resulting traffic snarl and human crush sent officials scrambling to close the city's borders again by day's end.

Tuesday afternoon, Galveston city officials announced they would allow homeowners to check on their property between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. They then had to leave the city, or face a $2,000 fine.

The compromise came after days of ordering residents to stay away from an area that officials say is not safe to inhabit.

As word spread that city officials were allowing Galveston residents to check their property, traffic on southbound Interstate 45 from Houston backed up for at least eight miles. Drivers impatiently inched forward in stop-and-go traffic, easing around utility trucks and yelling at those trying to sneak forward along the emergency lane.

On the island, pickup trucks and compact cars raced along streets that weren't still blocked by fallen trees, overturned sailboats and piles of shattered homes. Rescue crews and firetrucks at times were blocked by residents hauling their mud-covered possessions into the backs of trailers or stuffing stacks of water-logged photographs into car trunks.

By the time the 6 p.m. curfew arrived with thousands of drivers still hoping to get in, flustered Galveston officials put an end to the program and once again barred residents from returning to the city.

"We can't handle this," City Manager Steve LeBlanc told reporters. "If this many people are on the island, it isn't going to work. . . . We can't have this."

On nearby Bolivar peninsula, county officials said they may impose martial law to force the remaining people to leave. Adding to the chaos, there were reports that a tiger and a lion were on the loose.

Texas health commissioner Dr. David Lakey said residents of Galveston Island who stayed faced potential health problems and the risk of infectious diseases. Little medical care is available, he said.

"For folks on the island, they need to consider if they really need to be here," he said.

Earlier in the day, President Bush visited southeast Texas, touring by helicopter and visiting an emergency operations center in Galveston.

Authorities have reported 47 deaths in 10 states as a result of Hurricane Ike, which spread from Texas to the Midwest, according to the Associated Press. Seventeen of those deaths were in Texas.

At least 30,000 evacuees were housed in hundreds of public shelters, many in southeast Texas, as well as the Austin and San Antonio areas, according to state officials and the Associated Press. A significant number have no idea what they will return to, or when they will be able to get home.

Many expected to spend much of this week waiting in line for water, ice and food: Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said Tuesday that the agency had already handed out 1.5 million ready-to-eat meals and 1.6 million pounds of ice.

There were 19 distribution centers in Harris County, which includes Houston, according to state officials. But the supplies, at least in some cases, couldn't keep up with the demand.

Still, there were signs that Houston, at least, was slowly coming back to life. The city's airports have reopened to commercial flights with limited service. And CenterPoint Energy officials, noting that 690,000 customers have their power back on in Harris County, estimated that 50% to 75% of its customers would have power back by Sept. 23.

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