By  on September 17, 2008

Power was slowly being restored in Texas on Tuesday after the ravages of Hurricane Ike, permitting more retailers to get back to business.

But with almost 1.5 million customers — 66 percent of businesses and households — still without electricity in the Houston metropolitan area, authorities said it might be weeks before full service was restored.

“It is improving,” said Terry Hadley, a spokesman for the Public Utility Commission of Texas. “It will take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. It is such a large area.”

Houston Mayor Bill White said a critical shortage of ice to prevent food spoilage was one of the biggest problems. He also cited a delay in distribution of meals, ice and water by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

As President Bush viewed the storm wreckage along the Texas coast from a helicopter Tuesday, some stores and malls reported brisk business for basic needs, like underwear and linens. The Texas Attorney General’s Office said it was investigating alleged price gouging by some merchants.

“Ike is certainly a shock, but over the next 12 months somewhere between $10 [billion] and $20 billion will flow into the state from insurance payments and charitable donations and federal disaster insurance,” said Bernard Weinstein, an economist at the University of North Texas. “That is new money that gets pumped in, and in a curious way natural disasters often lead to economic boomlets as the area rebuilds.”

An estimated 300,000 to 400,000 people suffered significant property loss. Some of the worst hit areas, including swaths of Galveston and the Bolivar Peninsula, were almost leveled and authorities urged evacuees to stay away.

Farther north, The Galleria, the largest mall in Houston, had 365 stores up and running Tuesday and just 10 were closed, said Nicole Davis, marketing director. “We are seeing quite a bit of a crowd. I see a lot of people buying shoes and clothing,” she said.

At Macy’s stores that were open in metro Houston “the traffic has been surprisingly strong,” said Ed Smith, regional vice president.

Two more Macy’s were to reopen Wednesday at San Jacinto Mall and Pasadena Mall, and the company was assessing damages at seven other stores in the area.

A cool front brought comfortable temperatures in the mid-70s. “That has been a real godsend,” Smith said.

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