Houston struggles back to normal after Hurricane Ike (Feature)
By Gonzalo Espariz Sep 16, 2008, 23:04 GMT
Houston, Texas - Only a few days had passed since Hurricane Ike tore into the Gulf Coast of Texas, and Houston was trying to return to normal.
Yet without petrol, power or clean drinking water, and with thousands of fallen trees still cluttering streets, it was a difficult task.
Truck driver Lucas Pipkins, a native of Houston, called it 'pretty bad.' He told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa that he felt a better understanding of what people in New Orleans endured after Hurricane Katrina three years ago, 'even though we weren't hit that hard.'
Houston is far from being the disaster zone that coastal Galveston and especially the Bolivar Peninsula are. But the impacts of storm damage and disruptions in basic services are magnified in a metropolis of 4 million, the fourth-largest city in the United States.
Amid the chaos, Houston authorities have extended nightly curfews for the entire city through Saturday.
The lack of electricity has the farthest-reaching effects, and local utilities have warned that full restoration of service across the Houston region will take weeks. Centerpoint Energy, which supplies about 90 per cent of the city, said that 1.5 million people remained blacked out on Tuesday.
Generators fueled by petrol or diesel have become a hot commodity.
Resident Dan Skrabanek said that he was simply learning to make do without the usual modern conveniences that require power. 'The important thing is that we're alive,' he said.
One of the greatest frustrations of the lack of power is that petrol petrol stations are largely disabled. Many actually have fuel in their underground tanks, but the pumps don't work without electricity.
A functioning petrol pump was a post-storm urban myth - almost everybody believed they exist, but nobody had actually seen one.
The few petrol stations that could open for business quickly ran out of fuel. Long lines formed outside stations sometimes based just on rumours of petrol, only to dissipate when proven unfounded, leaving drivers with their fuel guages even closer to empty. Loud arguments were common.
Jaime Garcia, the son of Mexican immigrants, had just managed to put 50 dollars' worth of gas in his tank. It took a four-hour wait and several small quarrels, all of it at the end of an eight-hour shift at his hospital job.
The week after Hurricane Ike is 'not a good time to live in Houston,' he said.
Pipkins and his wife had just left the Kroger supermarket in the medical district of Houston. It was one of the first groceries to reopen on Sunday morning, after all stores in the city had locked their doors by Friday afternoon before Ike's imminent arrival.
At first, the Kroger's supplies were abundant except for fresh meat and fish. Almost anything on the shelves was a welcome change from whatever provisions people have been subsisting on at home.
Skrabanek complained of crackers 'coming out of my ears.'
The problem at the store was the lack of staff, which forced exceptional measures in the face of an avalanche of patrons: only a few people at a time were allowed in, and customers waiting outside could only enter when someone else finished shopping.
The line soon stretched to the parking lot, only to multiply when a local radio station reported that the supermarket was open. Within a few hours, the Kroger's shelves were empty, and no one knew when the store would be restocked.
Despite endless pleading by authorities for people avoid venturing out of their homes unless absolutely necessary, traffic on a major thoroughfare nearby seemed to have returned to normal throughout the day.
Pipkins called the official advice to stay off the streets unrealistic. 'We need to buy things,' he insisted, rattling off a shopping list including batteries to power the torch and radio, canned goods and other essentials.
He was more supportive of the overnight curfew. Despite the return of daytime traffic, driving in the dark remains harrowing.
'Traffic lights are not working,' Pipkins said. 'People do not respect signs, and they come out of anywhere without looking. It's very dangerous.'
In Houston's downtown financial district, Ike shattered countless windows in glittering skyscrapers. The Chase Tower, the tallest building in the city, looked like an abandoned building, with scores of broken windows. The danger of falling glass forced police to close all the surrounding streets.
Telephones remained unreliable, particularly mobile service, and residents in hard-hit neighbourhoods without power could not watch television to stay informed.
Schools will be closed until at least next week, and public events remain suspended. Businesses were resuming operations at the discretion of management and employees.
But there was a silver lining to the disaster with ordinary people rubbing elbows and helping each other in ways often lost in the fast pace of modern life. A smiling Skrabanek said that he now knows his neighbours 'a lot better than before.'