- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2008

OVER THE GULF COAST | The small town of Gilchrist, Texas, may as well have had a target on it when Hurricane Ike slammed ashore early Saturday morning.

A single house remained standing in the small coastal town, just north of Galveston Island on the Bolivar Peninsula.

Not only were all of the other houses and buildings obliterated by the Category 2 storm, but in some instances the debris also was swept away, leaving foundations as the only sign that the area was once inhabited by families and businesses.

“I sure hope everybody had evacuated here,” said Carlos Rivera, a detection enforcement officer with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Division, as he downloaded some of the federal government’s first aerial photos of the region Sunday.

A reporter rode along with the division Sunday afternoon as it conducted its second mission over Ike’s path of destruction. Aboard its P-3 Orion Long Range Tracker, the division recorded video and took high-resolution photos of the hurricane damage for federal agencies.

The mission is part of CBP Air and Marine Division’s growing effort to provide quick intelligence on hurricane destruction that Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other government agencies can use to direct disaster relief.

Two weeks ago, the division began flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over affected areas before and after Hurricane Gustav, taking photos and sending the results, which highlight the differences, to FEMA and other agencies.

On Sunday, an Air and Marine Division crew, flying at 1,000 to 4,000 feet, found that Galveston Island was virtually cut off from the mainland. One crossing was flooded, and a large portion of another bridge was missing. A third connector road, which is passable, was open only to emergency workers. Portions of the island not flooded were covered with sand washed up into backyards and debris strewn on front lawns.

The destruction continued just north of Galveston, particularly to the Bolivar Peninsula through southwestern Louisiana.

“In the area north of Galveston, it’s clear that’s where the eye hit,” said Tim Hackett, an air interdiction agent.

Little remained on the peninsula besides debris and a small number of structures that withstood the storm surge and wind.

On Galveston Island, there was extensive flooding, with boats and debris tossed about like toys amid destruction. The floodwaters at the local airport had begun to recede Sunday.

On Monday, the death toll rose to 30 in eight states, the Associated Press reported, as Ike made its way across the Midwest. On the Gulf Coast, emergency crews conducted search and rescue missions, going door to door in rural parts of Texas.

Also on Monday, rescuers found 60 survivors on the Bolivar Peninsula, the Associated Press reported.

Power outages were the major obstacle in Houston, where FEMA crews opened two stations of supplies Monday morning. Residents are running out of food, water and patience.

In hard-hit areas such as Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula, residents were warned to stay away.

“I know how tough it is to be out of your home,” said FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison in a conference call with reporters. “But I’d just ask people to be patient. … Don’t put first responders or your families at risk.”

In Orange, Texas, authorities discovered that caskets and remains had floated out of the ground.

“We’re working with the state and other federal partners to develop and implement a full body recovery activity to manage those remains … with dignity,” said Rear Adm. W. Craig Vanderwagen, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services.

For Sunday’s CBP mission, FEMA assigned an Air and Marine Division crew based in Jacksonville, Fla., about 60 targets that it wanted assessed. The list included power and chemical plants, refineries, cell-phone towers, bridges, hospitals and parts of Galveston Island no longer accessible by road.

“We assess as much as we can and back it up with visuals,” Mr. Rivera said.

Air and Marine Division crews gather the information with high-resolution cameras, shot from the P-3 flying as low as 1,000 feet over the affected area. From that height and with cameras, the crews can identify structural damage to buildings and zoom in enough to nearly pick up a car’s license plate.

“You can definitely see a lot of destruction,” said Timothy Flynn, an detection enforcement officer as he recorded video of the damage. “The video can provide a general overview of the damage out there.”

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