Americans brace for Hurricane Dean

Officials in the US state of Texas are today preparing for Hurricane Dean.

Officials in the US state of Texas are today preparing for Hurricane Dean.

Authorities passed out sandbags, evacuated inmates and opened emergency operations centres in a region still soaked from the remnants of Tropical Storm Erin, which caused severe flooding yesterday and at least 13 deaths from Texas to Minnesota.

Meanwhile, the federal government encouraged people in the southern part of the state to be ready for the worst.

“If I was a Texas resident, particularly along the southeast coast, I would make sure I was ready,” R. David Paulison, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told reporters in Washington. “This is not a time to be complacent.”

A state of emergency was declared in the resort town of South Padre Island. About 3,300 jail and prison inmates in the area were to be bussed to correctional facilities elsewhere last night.

Paulison said up to 100,000 people might have to be evacuated from the state’s southeastern coast and its immigrant shantytowns near the Mexican border.

The storm is on course for northern Mexico, but could shift and hit the region around Brownsville, Texas, Paulison said.

Flooding from what was left of Erin forced about 1,000 people to evacuate homes in Abilene yesterday and was blamed for at least 13 deaths in Texas, Oklahoma and Minnesota.

The level of preparation for Dean was influenced by memories of two destructive hurricanes that hammered the Gulf Coast region in 2005.

“In part, it is because of the unfortunate events from Rita and Katrina,” Johnny Cavazos, the chief emergency director for Cameron County at the southern tip of the state.

During Rita, the evacuation quickly turned into a nightmare of clogged highways, stalled traffic and sweltering heat, as motorists from the coast ran into residents fleeing Houston.

Petrol stations ran out of fuel and supplies, and drivers sat for hours on gridlocked evacuation routes.

Dean was a Category Four storm last night, threatening to pour as much as 20 inches (50 centimetres) of rain on Jamaica.

The National Hurricane Centre in Miami said it was projected to reach the most dangerous hurricane classification, Category 5, with wind of 160 mph (257 kilometres) before crashing into the Mexican coastline near Cancun tonight or tomorrow.

The storm was forecast to make landfall on Wednesday, likely somewhere along the coast of northern Mexican or southern Texas, the hurricane centre said.

Even if Mexico gets the brunt of the storm, Texas could still get soaked by Dean’s outer bands of heavy rain, Cavazos said.

Texas Gov Rick Perry mobilised the National Guard and search and rescue teams, shipped 60,000 to 80,000 barrels of petrol to petrol stations in the Rio Grande Valley, and got a pre-emptive federal disaster declaration from President George Bush.

The state sent six C-130 aircraft to Cameron County to help if any critically ill patients need to be evacuated from local hospitals.

Buses from the city, state, and military were on standby for possible evacuations, including a fleet of 700 sent by the governor’s office. Another 600 buses were on standby in San Antonio.

Government agencies have 10 million litres of emergency water and four million nonperishable food packs available in Texas, Paulison said, while the American Red Cross has seven million litres of water ready and its own supply of MREs.

Paulison said US officials already have spoken with the Mexican government about expedited processing by US customs and border agencies should Mexican residents temporarily need to cross the border.

“We’re going to protect people regardless of what country they are from,” the FEMA chief said.

Paulison took over in 2006 after his predecessor, Michael Brown, was criticised for the government’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina in the summer of 2005.

“Katrina was a wake-up call for all of us in emergency management and also for the federal government. We have to play together as a team, have to respond as the federal government, not as individual agencies,” Paulison said.

“I do not see this country allowing another Katrina-type event to happen.”

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