After the largest search-and-rescue mission in Texas history pulled out some 2,000 people stranded by hurricane Ike's 500-mile-wide storm surge, an equally massive humanitarian relief effort has kicked into gear to bolster a dazed southeast Texas, where gas, food, ice, and patience are all in short supply.
Based on initial reports, hurricane Ike is clearly nothing less than a whopper.
Nationally, the storm – which initially paralyzed the financial and energy center of Houston, America's fourth-largest city – could weigh down the already fragile American economy. For sure, it burdens as many as 5 million Texans and Louisianans having to contend with the long, sweaty slog back from what is likely to become the second-most costly storm in US history, with some damage estimates running more than $20 billion.
From the debris fields of Galveston to the flooded back roads of Orange County, Tex., millions of people went into survival mode as federal and state authorities rushed humanitarian relief – including 80 trucks of military-style "meals ready to eat" (MREs), ice, diapers, and water – into Houston, where Texans were ordered to "hunker down" before the storm. Millions of people face weeks without electricity in the Gulf's subtropical heat.
"It grieves you to see the damage that our beloved Texas has faced," said Gov. Rick Perry. "Ike had a pretty solid punch, but he didn't dent our spirits."
Those spirits – as well as those of the nation as a whole – will be tested in coming weeks and months as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other agencies plan to end search-and-rescue missions Tuesday, focusing solely on humanitarian relief.
Few, if any supplies, had been distributed more than 24 hours after Ike made landfall, leaving even some first responders hungry.
What's more, charitable organizations, which played a central role in post-Katrina emergency relief, report they're already exhausted and depleted after responding to hurricanes Gustav and Hanna, as well as tropical storm Fay.
"It's ironic that this has happened over the anniversary weekend of 9/11," says Walter Gillis Peacock, the director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University in College Station.
"There's still this sense of the country on a warfooting and not addressing the fundamental issues of coordination, information flow, and issues of constantly outsourcing things," he says. "There's still a broader issue ... of natural hazards and the whole process of where we build, how we build, and we need to start facing that."
Television images of the destruction showed that Ike had transformed the Texas Gulf Coast.
Much of Galveston is ripped to shreds. Coast Guard helicopter pilots said yachts were piled up on a golf course near Sabine Pass on the Texas-Louisiana border. National Guard soldiers removed a shrimp boat from the road into rural Hackberry, La., but were turned back by strong currents and low visibility before reaching the enclave, where some 100 people remained stranded.
In the resort community of Crystal Beach, residents reported that it looked as if a bomb had gone off. Deep inland, people sat on porches, trying to catch a breeze, facing weeks of no air conditioning in one of America's most tropical hothouses.
Galveston will face tough questions about how, or whether, to rebuild after the storm. But for now, city officials have a more immediate problem: They're considering a second evacuation for the 100,000 people who stayed in the area. The most pressing problem for Galveston and other areas is to keep evacuees from returning to their homes, so as not to compound the humanitarian dilemma.
"Do not come back to Galveston," Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas warned those who had fled. "You cannot live here at this time."
US Department of Security Secretary Michael Chertoff cautioned that there may be "unpleasant surprises" as boat and helicopter rescue crews continue to scour the vast debris fields of Galveston and Crystal Beach.
So far, 28 deaths have been reported, including five on Galveston Island, and questions remain about the situation for as many as 500 people who tried to ride out the storm on the Bolivar Peninsula near the Louisiana border.
Meanwhile pre-staged relief trucks have begun pouring into the area, bringing tons of ice, water, and 12 varieties of MREs, including imitation barbecue ribs and Cajun beans and rice.
In Houston, one out of every four residents had power by Sunday night, and dozens of grocery stores began opening the next morning. Commercial flights resumed at Bush Intercontinental Airport.
But in surrounding Harris County, as well as in Galveston and in the Texas oil center of Beaumont up the coast, the logistical challenge of feeding and cooling millions of people spread out over hundreds of square miles of low country is daunting.
With so many people poised to run out of food and fuel, Houston Mayor Bill White says the stakes are enormous for FEMA and other federal agencies to get the humanitarian response right.
"Ninety percent of people claim they are prepared to survive at least three days on their own, but even if that's true 10 percent would create a big demand," writes Earl Baker, a hurricane preparedness expert at Florida State University in Tallahassee, in an e-mail.
"There will be problems figuring out how much is needed where, and then how to get it there. Low-income people, minorities, and the elderly usually need more assistance sooner," Mr. Baker wrote.
Despite the discomfort, frustration, and uncertainty, Texans showed signs of pulling together to help, comfort, and entertain one another.
In Houston, kids were in the streets, clearing sticks from culverts, and young couples could be seen playing cards on the front stoops of apartment buildings. When a group of first-responders ran out of food and water at a local middle school, residents responded by bringing over enough plates of venison tamales to distribute the leftovers to other hungry Houstonians.