Ike-battered island still cleaning up after direct hit
HOUSTON — Flight control of the International Space Station will return to the Johnson Space Center on Friday, NASA said today as the Texas Gulf Coast slowly tries to get back to day-to-day life in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike.
Traffic on the downtown streets of the nation's fourth-largest city picked up today, nearly a week after the massive Category 2 storm plowed ashore on Galveston Island, south of Houston. CenterPoint Energy said it had restored power to nearly 900,000 homes, approaching the point where more people in Houston would be with electricity than without.
"If I could make a wish for a single magic bullet to move us forward, it would be to get the power lines fixed," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said.
Chertoff was in Southeast Texas for the second straight day, watching over the federal relief effort that has delivered hundreds of trucks of ice, water and food to the region's more than 5 million people. To help ease the recovery, federal officials urged private lenders today to cut some slack to financially strapped homeowners after earlier issuing a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures.
"A lot of times, after a disaster, people come back, they have expenses they didn't count on," Housing and Urban Development Secretary Steve Preston said as he stood alongside Chertoff. "We want to make sure they have breathing room before they have to worry about mortgages (that) will become an additional challenge for them."
Johnson Space Center shut down a few days before Ike's strike. Officials said the home of Mission Control incurred only minimal damage from the storm. While the space flight center was closed, the duties had been passed temporarily to backup facilities near Austin and in Huntsville, Ala.
In wrecked Galveston, where those who defied forecasters' warning of "certain death" to ride out the storm on the barrier island, there were fresh signs of life.
For the second day since the storm hit, a Kroger store on Seawall Boulevard was open to business. The scene was almost festive, as workers grilled fajitas for employees who had removed enough spoiled food to fill 16 dump trucks. No meat or dairy products were available, but most other items were.
State and local officials still said the island wasn't yet ready to reopen. Threats of mosquito-born disease and a lack of services, including hospital care, have led officials to urge residents to stay away.
Authorities let residents and business owners back onto the island briefly Tuesday to examine their property quickly and leave again, but that led to frustrating traffic jams.
Work continued on a revised plan to let residents return in phases.
"We are strongly advising motorist to avoid travel in that area," said Raquelle Lewis, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation.
Ike's death toll in the U.S. stood at 52, with 18 in Texas. Authorities in Louisville, Ky., said today that a woman there died after being exposed to carbon monoxide poisoning Wednesday night from a generator at her home. Ike brought hurricane-force wind as far north as Kentucky, causing the state's largest power outage ever.
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.
Christopher Sherman reported from Galveston. Associated Press writers Paul J. Weber in Houston and Juan A. Lozano in Galveston contributed to this report.