First responders risk their lives saving people trapped by Ike

ORANGE, Texas (AP) - Even as they plucked people from rooftops and wrecked neighborhoods on Saturday, emergency responders grumbled over how many brushed off dire warnings and tried to ride out Hurricane Ike.

"When you stay behind in the face of a warning, not only do you jeopardize yourself, you put the first responders at risk as well," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said. "Now we're going to see this play out."

While more than 2 million people evacuated ahead of Ike, tens of thousands more ignored evacuation orders and swamped rescue crews Saturday with emergency calls from the flooded lowlands of East Texas and western Louisiana.

"Of course it's frustrating. There was a mandatory evacuation, and people didn't leave," said Steve LeBlanc, Galveston's city manager. "They had enough time to get out. It's just unfortunate that they decided to stay."

Federal, state and local crews ventured out in boats, high-wheeled trucks - even dump trucks to save them. Dozens of helicopters soon joined the effort, along with Coast Guard jets.

Since Ike made landfall, there have been 940 rescues in Texas of those stranded, said Gov. Rick Perry's spokeswoman Allison Castle.

"Where we see people, we're picking them up," said Jack Colley, director of the Texas division of emergency management.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said nearly 600 people were plucked from Ike's floodwaters since Friday.

"This was a storm that caused flooding from one end of the state to the other, literally the whole coast," Jindal told a news conference Saturday night.

In Cameron Parish, Louisiana, National Guard members in a truck picked up 82-year-old A.B. Monroe and drove him to his 83-year-old ex-wife's house across town, at the request of their daughter.

"Now I can keep my eye on both of them," said daughter Sheila Monroe Graham.

Texas officials also lamented that they couldn't do more to force people out ahead of the storm.

"This is a democracy," said Mark Miner, a spokesman for Perry. "Local officials who can order evacuations put out very strong messages. Gov. Perry put out a very strong warning. But you can't force people to leave their homes. They made a decision to ride out the storm. Our prayers are with them."

There were few reports of fatalities, though authorities stressed that high winds and flooded roads had kept them from reaching some of the hardest-hit areas.

"We've heard some unconfirmed reports of a few deaths," Chertoff said. "We hope it's as small a number as possible, but we're going to have to wait and see."

In Harris County, which includes Houston, the Coast Guard rescued 103 before the storm and 33 people Saturday for 136 total, according to Coast Guard Lt. Robert Schoen.

In Orange County, 600 to 700 people had been rescued by nightfall, said officials who feared hundreds more were still stranded. There was widespread flooding in Orange and Bridge City, where rescuers were pulling people from attics and rooftops, and in Lake Charles, across the Louisiana line.

The enormous size of the storm presented its own set of problems for rescuers.

Ike spanned more than 500 miles, spreading damage from south of Houston to the mouth of the Mississippi. Rescuers struggled to pinpoint the hardest-hit places - and the most needy - among a patchwork of debris, fallen trees and flooded homes.

A spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency said they had received numerous and conflicting reports about where the damage was - and how bad.

On the road to Galveston Island, where Ike struck land early Saturday, crumpled boats, inner tubes, rotting wood littered Interstate 45 as FEMA teams headed into the impact zone. Galveston officials reported rescuing more than 100 people on the island.

Elsewhere, Coast Guard crews scoured choppy waters off Corpus Christi for a 19-year-old who was swept out to sea while standing on a jetty on Friday.

Up the coast in Orange and Jefferson counties, some officials said the damage from Ike was even worse than Hurricane Rita, which rampaged through the region in 2005.

The Beaumont region was evacuated ahead of Hurricane Gustav, which missed southeast Texas, and many were reluctant to leave this time, Fire Capt. Brad Penisson said.

"A lot of people felt it was a false alarm," he said. "I think they're realizing this is not a false alarm."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)