Thousands in Texas Flee Hurricane Ike

Tens of thousands of people fled coastal areas of Texas on Wednesday after Hurricane Ike spun off Cuba, roared into the Gulf of Mexico and headed toward the state with growing strength.

After pummeling Haiti, Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean, Ike refueled in the Gulf of Mexico and headed toward landfall near Corpus Christi, where it is expected to hit early Saturday as a Category 4 hurricane with winds exceeding speeds of 131 miles per hour.

With memories of Hurricane Dolly in July still fresh in their minds, officials in Brazoria County, the city of Galveston and other areas that could be in the storm’s path lined up more than a thousand buses and began transporting residents to shelters and community centers further inland. State officials opened up a northbound shoulder on Interstate 37 to ease the flow of evacuees.

Many cities began evacuating medical patients with special needs first, and school districts along the coast, including the Corpus Christi Independent School District, canceled classes through the remainder of the week. As the first evacuees arrived in San Antonio, Dallas-Fort Worth, and other cities early Wednesday afternoon, President Bush declared an emergency in Texas and offered federal aid to state and local officials.

For the most part, the evacuations appeared to run smoothly. In Brazoria, just south of Houston, officials issued mandatory evacuation orders to as many as 20,000 people in Freeport and other coastal areas. In Galveston, Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas issued voluntary evacuations to about 1o,000 residents in the western portion of the city, an area of million-dollar beachfront homes that rest on stilts.

“Use your own judgment,” Ms. Thomas said. “Take care of yourself. You know what to do.”

As of 4 p.m. Central time on Wednesday, the hurricane was about 370 miles south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River and spiraling on a northwest path with wind speeds near 100 miles per hour, making it currently a Category 2 on a scale of 1 to 5, the National Hurricane Center said. But with Ike feeding off the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico as it aims for Texas, it is expected to develop into a far more severe hurricane, likely Category 4, at some point during the day Thursday, forecasters said.

Concerns that Ike could damage offshore platforms and infrastructure prompted oil companies to evacuate workers from more than 400 of the 717 manned production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, the Minerals Management Service said. But with many of the platforms strengthened since hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck in 2005, there was a sense that many production facilities might emerge unscathed.

That belief, combined with the likelihood that OPEC would keep oil production stable, led to a decline in crude oil prices on Wednesday. Offshore oil platforms in the gulf handle about a quarter of the nation’s petroleum production.

Dolly, a Category 2 hurricane, was the last major storm to pound Texas, when it dumped 16 inches of rain along the coast in July, knocked out power to 210,000 homes and businesses, and caused at least $1.2 billion worth of damage. With Hurricane Ike almost certain to pack even more strength, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas issued a disaster declaration and activated 7,500 National Guard troops.

As it barrels into the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Ike leaves in its wake a trail of devastation. It has already claimed about 80 lives in the Caribbean, a majority of them in Haiti, which was still recovering from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Gustav in late August. On Wednesday, the White House spokeswoman, Dana Perino, said the United States would provide $10 million in humanitarian aid to Haiti.

After hitting Haiti, Hurricane Ike slammed Cuba, where it traveled east across the island with winds that reached Category 3 speeds. The storm moved so quickly that it killed four people before the Cuban government – which has a history of responding well to hurricanes – could evacuate most of the people in its path. By early Wednesday, more than 2.5 million evacuees had fled the storm, and at least 16 buildings were toppled in the island’s capital, Havana.

Thayer Evans contributed reporting from Galveston.

Published: September 10, 2008

Source: The New York Times

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