Officials: Ike Death Toll Rises to at Least 50

As death toll rises, many Ike evacuees are still not allowed home.

September 17, 2008, 7:58 AM

Sept. 17, 2008 — -- The death toll for Hurricane Ike has risen to at least 50 people across 11 states, authorities said Wednesday, as evacuees from Galveston wondered when they might return to their storm-ravaged island.

The Galveston County Medical Examiner told the Associated Press that a first death had been confirmed in Brazoria County, Texas.

Meanwhile, it remains unclear when Ike evacuees who were told they could return to survey what was left of their Galveston, Texas, homes would be allowed to do so.

As traffic snarled on I-45 South Tuesday, with residents attempting to take advantage of the "look and leave" policy before a dusk curfew, waiting motorists became increasingly frustrated when they were told they had to turn around and that the island would be closed.

"I have been in line for two hours," one driver told a police officer who was trying to turn him around before he reached the city. "I know you don't care."

The 110 mph winds, heavy rain and massive flooding from Hurricane Ike left Galveston in ruins. Residents were so desperate to get back and salvage anything they could that they were willing to wait in line for hours Tuesday for the chance to spend just a few precious minutes at home. For some evacuees, who fled as far away as Austin and San Antonio, the trip seemed almost impossible.

Only those who could prove they were homeowners were allowed over the bridge and many became furious when they were suddenly told to leave, some before they could even make it to their homes.

Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas initially said that residents could return to see what was left of their homes and businesses and "gather important belongings" as part of a "look and leave" re-entry plan for 12 hours a day.

"I would make every effort to get them back to Galveston as soon as possible," Thomas said, referring to her plan to allow residents to return the island. "That being said, we are going to have a 'look and leave' policy beginning now."

Officials even planned to enforce the policy with fines.

"When it hits 6 p.m., you need to be gone," Galveston City Manager Steve LeBlanc warned residents. "We have a $2,000 fine that we will enforce."

But after massive traffic jams getting back into the city, the mayor later announced that the program was suspended indefinitely.

City managers decided that continuing the policy was just too dangerous.

"We have no water. We have no sewer. You can't flush the toilets," LeBlanc said. "And what that means is it's unhealthy, it's unsafe."

The situation raises questions about the planning and coordination on the part of law enforcement and FEMA with regard to Tuesday's announcement. Galveston still lacks most of its basic services. There is very little medical help available, should residents get hurt in all the debris or inside homes or other buildings that may not be safe.

On neighboring Bolivar Peninsula, about 250 holdouts who rode out the storm remained on the devastated island, and officials are trying to force them to leave.

"It is pretty rough conditions over there," County Judge Jim Yarbrough, the top elected official in Galveston County, told The Associated Press. "We have access issues for delivery of emergency services. Our goal is to vacate the peninsula."

In Houston, thousands waited again in long lines for basic supplies, like gas, food and water, and faced similar aggravation.

"We're tired and we're frustrated and we are hungry," one resident told ABC News.

Today, 1.5 million people were still without clean water or electricity. Over the next few days, FEMA says it will deliver more than 7 million meals, 5 million gallons of water and 19 million pounds of ice.

Eric Smith, logistics manager for FEMA, said coordinating the relief effort "meant moving nearly 300 trucks full of emergency supplies ... to where they are needed the most -- a disaster area larger than the state of New York."

President Bush traveled to the region Tuesday to assess the damage caused by Hurricane Ike; in Houston, he praised state and local officials' evacuation plan as "excellent in its planning and in execution." He also called the rescue plan "very bold."

Homeland Security Sec. Michael Chertoff plans to visit both Houston and Galveston Wednesday.

ABC News' Sharyn Alfonsi and Eric Horng contributed to this report.

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