Galveston Evacuating Residents as Rita Looms

9-21-05 - This island city on Wednesday readied to evacuate hundreds of people who can't leave on their own as Hurricane Rita barreled toward the Texas Gulf Coast.

About 80 buses were set to leave starting at 10 a.m. CDT, bound for shelters 100 miles north in Huntsville. The buses were part of a mandatory evacuation ordered by officials in Galveston County, which has a population of nearly 267,000.

North of Galveston in Harris County, which includes Houston, the state's largest city, officials were not ordering an evacuation, but urged residents to prepare for flooding as much as 35 miles inland.

Authorities said they wanted to make sure Texans learned from watching the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which slammed into Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi on Aug. 29. Hundreds of thousands of people stayed through the storm, leaving many for days without food or water.

"The real lesson (from Katrina) that I think the citizens learned is that the people in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi did not leave in time. There was great loss of life and property and misery," said Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas. "We just don't want that to happen here. We've always asked people to leave earlier, but because of Katrina, they are now listening to us and they're leaving as we say."

"We all feel the same way. These storms are horrible. They are treacherous," said Ldyyan Jean Jocque, 59, as she waited awaited her bus ride outside the Galveston Community Center before sunrise Wednesday. "After this killer in New Orleans, Katrina, I just cannot fathom staying."

The resident of the nearby Bolivar Peninsula packed her Bible, some music and clothes into plastic bags and loaded her 10-year-old dog, Aussie, into a pet carrier for the trip to Huntsville.

Also leaving was 61-year-old Christina Ybarra. The lifelong Galveston resident said she, along with her cousin and other family members, were heading to Lubbock.

"We just want to go way out there, to be sure we are far enough away," she said as her brother Gerard on Tuesday boarded up their family home with plywood.

Other Texans who had ridden out major hurricanes along the Gulf Coast also boarded up windows, packed their valuables and started driving inland.

Rita was upgraded to a Category 4 storm early Wednesday with winds reaching 135 mph. That is the same intensity reached by Katrina. Forecasters say Rita could make landfall Friday night somewhere on the Texas Gulf Coast, although Louisiana and northern Mexico were possibilities.

At 4 a.m., Rita's eye was about 175 miles west of Key West. The storm was moving west near 14 mph _ a track that was pulling it away from the Keys and into the Gulf of Mexico.

This month marks the 105th anniversary of the hurricane that wiped out Galveston in one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history. An estimated 8,000 people were killed.

Aware of this history, Thomas said Galveston County officials used a law passed this year to order a mandatory evacuation of its coastal communities beginning Wednesday night. But authorities said they would not forcibly remove anyone from their homes.

Other parts of Texas also prepared for Rita.

Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday declared the state a disaster area and spoke with President Bush to request approval of federal aid to affected counties. Perry spokeswoman Kathy Walt said the president did not immediately act on the governor's request.

The State Emergency Operations Center also went on 24-hour status Tuesday, with 34 state agencies on site, Walt said.

The state Division of Emergency Management started moving food, water and other supplies to Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio in preparation for evacuees or to use in case of power outages in those areas.

The last major hurricane to strike Texas was Alicia in 1983, which flooded downtown Houston, spawned 22 tornadoes and left 21 people dead. Damages totaled more than $2 billion from the Category 3 storm.

Thousands of Katrina refugees brought to shelters in Texas were relocated Tuesday to Arkansas and Tennessee.

After witnessing Katrina, Houston emergency managers modified traffic management plans and made the elderly and those with special needs a priority for evacuations.

The Houston area's geography makes evacuation particularly tricky. Unlike other hurricane-prone cities where the big city is on the coast, Houston is 60 miles inland. So a coastal suburban area of 2 million people has to evacuate through a metropolitan area of nearly 4 million.

"It is not going to be as bad as Katrina, but if it is, we are prepared to get people out," said Frank Gutierrez, Harris County Emergency Management coordinator. "My advice to the public is to be prepared."


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