As Hurricane Ike charged into the Gulf of Mexico and toward the Texas coast, officials prepared today to evacuate the first of a million residents who could be in the way of the storm’s path.
Forecasters at the National Hurricane Centre predicted Ike, which has already raked the Caribbean and Cuba, would feed on the Gulf’s warm waters and intensify before slamming into the area near the southern Texas city of Corpus Christi early on Saturday morning.
If Texas officials order a mandatory exodus, it would be the first large-scale evacuation in South Texas history.
State and county officials used to let people decide for themselves whether to leave a hurricane area until just before Hurricane Rita struck the Gulf Coast in 2005.
Now county officials can order people out of harm’s way.
The evacuation would affect the impoverished Rio Grande Valley, home to many immigrants who have traditionally been fearful of evacuating out of concern they could be deported if stopped by authorities.
Some county officials say they will visit immigrant neighbourhoods and forcefully urge people to clear out.
After Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav, “there were a lot of immigrants who said, ’I’m not going to go,”’ said J.D. Salinas, the top elected official in Hidalgo County, which is in the Rio Grande delta. “It’s going to be hard.”
Governor Rick Perry has already declared 88 coastal counties disaster areas to start the flow of state aid, activated 7,500 National Guard troops and began preparing for an evacuation, lining up “buses rather than body bags”.
Texas emergency officials were taking no chances with the lives of its medically fragile citizens.
Residents with special needs in the Corpus Christi area were set to begin leaving by bus for the central Texas city of San Antonio today, and the state said it would open up a north-bound shoulder on an interstate highway for people who wished to begin leaving.
Texas officials were encouraging residents in the path of Hurricane Ike to do three things – listen to what local officials say, monitor weather reports and fill up with petrol as soon as possible.