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Texans rescued in Ike's path of widespread damage

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Search teams picked their way through debris and inundated roadways in Texas on Sunday, rescuing nearly 2,000 residents stranded after Hurricane Ike flooded coastal regions and cut power to millions of people.

State and local officials asked the federal government to speed up relief efforts, while warning people not to return home until it was safe. About 2 million people were evacuated before the storm made landfall.

To add to the misery, officials warned of possible gasoline shortages even as the price of fuel was rising at the pump.

Ike cut a swath of destruction after slamming into the Texas coast early on Saturday and moving inland to Houston, the heart of the U.S. oil industry, forcing many refineries to shut down as a precaution.

President George W. Bush, who will visit Texas on Tuesday, said it was too early to determine the extent of the damage to U.S. energy infrastructure. The storm also halted crude oil production in the Gulf of Mexico, representing a quarter of U.S. output.

The U.S. Coast Guard said the storm damaged some offshore oil production facilities but it did not yet know the extent.

Authorities in Houston, the fourth most populous U.S. city, ordered a weeklong curfew because of flooding and downed power lines. Widespread outages could last for weeks.

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Damage assessments have barely begun but early estimates suggest the bill could rise to $18 billion.

Local officials said rescue crews found at least three bodies on Galveston, an island city of 60,000 shredded by the storm. Overall, nearly 2,000 people have been rescued from flooded areas, state officials said.

As access to Galveston loosened, the extent of the damage because more clear. Block after block was flooded and streets were littered with the contents of homes.

“This is like Katrina without the deaths. We don’t have many deaths but we have a lot of destruction,” firefighter Mel Rourke Jr. said as he cleaned up his father’s house in Galveston. “It took 24 hours to destroy something that took decades to build.”

Ice, water and food from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have so far been slow to trickle into the hardest-hit areas, local media has reported.

“We expect FEMA to deliver these supplies, and we will hold them accountable,” a visibly frustrated Houston Mayor Bill White told a televised news conference.

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The Bush administration came under heavy fire for its slow and botched relief for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Thousands were left stranded for days in homes with flood waters reaching attics and in overcrowded evacuee centers.

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“We have been doing what we are supposed to do -- delivering supplies to the state,” the head of FEMA, David Paulison, told reporters. “We have pre-positioned a lot of supplies in Texas.”

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The hurricane swamped Galveston as it crashed ashore on Saturday and hammered Houston, 50 miles inland, shattering the windows of skyscrapers, showering streets with debris, tearing up trees and damaging buildings.

“It’s pretty obvious there was substantial and long-term damage done to Galveston Island,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said after flying over the historic coastal community.

Perry also made a plea to the federal government to accelerate aid to the region, which he called vital to America’s economy and the global energy supply.

“We are very aware of the critical economic role that this region plays,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters in Galveston, adding that restoring power to 4.5 million people was the starting point to recovery.

Joe Becker, senior vice president of disaster services at the American Red Cross, said 42,000 people were in shelters on Saturday night.

Ike triggered the biggest disruption to U.S. energy supplies in at least three years and sent gasoline prices higher. But U.S. crude oil futures dropped more than $2 to as low as $98.46 a barrel in a special electronic trading session on Sunday as traders shrugged off supply concerns.

At the pumps, gasoline shot up more than 10 cents -- up to $5 a gallon in some places -- in two days as retail fuel supply concerns mounted in the hurricane’s wake.

Wreckage and floodwaters have hampered attempts to search all of Galveston, where about 10,000 people ignored a mandatory evacuation order.

The sea wall protecting Galveston was piled high with the detritus of wrecked buildings and other debris. The hurricane’s winds lifted houses off their foundations and pushed boats and cars around the island.

“Do not come back to Galveston, you cannot live here at this time,” Lyda Ann Thomas, told reporters. The city has no water, no power and no gasoline, she said.

Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor, Eileen O’Grady, Erwin Seba, Ed Stoddard, Chris Baltimore and Bruce Nichols in Texas; James Vicini in Washington; Editing by Mary Milliken and John O’Callaghan

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