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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.”

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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.

President George W. Bush will view storm-damaged areas in Texas on Tuesday. He still is trying to rebuild his image as a disaster manager after he was widely criticized for a botched relief effort in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The relief roll-out appeared to defuse tensions that had flared between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local officials after Houston Mayor Bill White vowed to hold FEMA accountable for delivering on its commitments.


Officials from Texas -- which sheltered some 200,000 evacuees when Katrina devastated New Orleans -- pressed for equal treatment from federal aid agencies.

“I have asked the president and the administration to just treat us as fairly as they treated Louisiana back during Katrina,” said Texas Gov. Rick Perry. “Texans will take care of the rest.”

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FEMA said it will deliver 7.5 million meals over the next few days, along with 5.1 million gallons of water, 19.2 million pounds (8,700 tonnes) of ice, and 80,000 tarps.

Residents of Texas and Louisiana are in for tough times, FEMA Administrator David Paulison said. “Some people will be out of their homes for not only weeks, but months,” he said.

In Galveston, shocked and bewildered residents staggered through the streets as food and water grew scarce. There was little sign of any federal relief efforts.

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“FEMA ain’t been by, nobody,” said disabled retiree Vivian Matthews, who was stranded at her flooded apartment for two days. “They don’t give a damn if we live or die.”

Four deaths were reported by officials in Galveston -- scene of the worst U.S. weather disaster when a hurricane killed more than 8,000 people in 1900. One person was also killed in the Houston suburb of Pasadena, the mayor said.


Bush said Texas residents are “very frustrated” by the slow pace of recovery but “my message will be that we hear you and we’ll work as hard and fast as we can to help you get your lives back up to normal.”

Power outages were the main obstacle to recovery and authorities have warned that some people could be without it for days. Electricity is the lifeblood of Gulf Coast refineries that process about a quarter of the country’s fuel.

Power provider CenterPoint Energy reported it had restored power to 500,000 customers but about 1.6 million remained in the dark, including big Houston-based corporations.

U.S. crude oil futures shrugged off supply concerns and settled down $5.47 at $95.71 a barrel after hitting seven-month lows.

Ike caused minimal damage to oil refineries along the Gulf Coast and companies are preparing to restart operations at the 14 oil refineries in Texas and Louisiana that remained shut due to Ike, the Energy Department said.

Houston, the fourth biggest U.S. city and home to a booming economy thanks to energy demand, was still under a dusk-to-dawn curfew due to lack of power.

Authorities urged residents to boil water as protection against contamination and disease.

Across Houston, where the car is king, hundreds of drivers waited in long gas station lines. Residents lined up thousands deep at relief centers to get ice, water and food.

The city’s two main airports resumed partial operations. But with debris still littering its streets and windows blown out of office buildings, it could be weeks before the city of more than 2 million people returns to business as usual.

Additional reporting by Chris Baltimore, Erwin Seba, Eileen O’Grady, Anna Driver and Bruce Nichols in Houston and Randall Mikkelsen in Washington; editing by Ed Stoddard and Mohammad Zargham