September 10, 2008

Ike predicted to hit Texas, Lubbock prepares for evacuees

By: Matt Cobb

With Hurricane Ike steaming into the Gulf of Mexico, Texas emergency officials Tuesday stood ready to evacuate 1 million people from the impoverished Rio Grande Valley.

They put Lubbock on standby to provide refuge to what could be as many as 1,000 evacuees.

The Lubbock City Council appropriated $500,000 for emergency items to provide assistance and care to the evacuees, according to a statement made by the city. The state will reimburse all of the city's expenditures.

The Lubbock-based American Red Cross South Plains Regional Chapter is waiting to be notified by its national chapter before it begins to provide aid in response to the storm, said Megan Graham, fund development director of the chapter.

The chapter already is preparing to help with the evacuees and is waiting for proper notification, Graham said. It is planning to provide assistance both in Lubbock and wherever the storm makes landfall.

"We have a possibility of sending out an emergency response vehicle down to the coastline," Graham said. "It can feed up to 500 people at one time and could be down there for up to two weeks."

The City Bank Auditorium and Coliseum is set up to hold evacuees, Graham said, including 500 cots that were set up for evacuees expected to arrive after Hurricane Gustav. Necessary supplies also are in place.

The Texas Tech Police Department is preparing to provide security support to evacuees, said Gordon Hoffman, deputy chief of the department. They are planning to provide security to the coliseum and to aid with possible parking issues in any way they can if evacuees are brought to Lubbock.

"The word I've been given is that the city may get up to 1,000 evacuees," Hoffman said. "They could start arriving as soon as tomorrow, so we're preparing right now."

Emergency planning officials met all day Tuesday to decide if and when to announce a mandatory evacuation for coastal counties close to the Mexican border, according to the Associated Press.

With forecasts showing Hurricane Ike blowing ashore this weekend, authorities lined up nearly 1,000 buses in the region in case they are needed to move out the many poor and elderly people who have no cars.

Federal authorities gave assurances they would not check evacuees' immigration status at evacuation loading zones or inland checkpoints.

But residents were skeptical, according to the AP, and there were worries that many illegal immigrants would refuse to board buses and go to shelters for fear of getting arrested and deported.

"People are nervous," said the Rev. Michael Seifert, a Roman Catholic priest and immigrant advocate, according to the AP. "The message that was given to me was that it's going to be a real problem."

One reason for the skepticism: Back in May, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the U.S. Border Patrol would do nothing to impede an evacuation in the event of a hurricane. But when Hurricane Dolly struck the Rio Grande Valley in late July, no mandatory evacuation was ordered, and as a result the U.S. Border Patrol kept its checkpoints open. Agents soon caught a vanload of illegal immigrants.

It would be the first mandatory large-scale evacuation in South Texas history. State and county officials 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.

Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas said to the AP if an evacuation is ordered this time, county officials will visit immigrant neighborhoods 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 Salinas, the county's top elected official. "It's going to be hard."

In Washington, Rear Adm. W. Craig Vanderwagen, assistant U.S. health secretary for preparedness and response, told reporters: "In storm events, if people are trapped it doesn't particularly matter to those of us in the humanitarian assistance world which side of that border they come from. We will do what we need to do to evacuate the people who need to be evacuated."

At 5 p.m. EDT, Ike was about 90 miles southwest of Havana, Cuba, moving northwest at 10 mph with sustained winds near 75 mph. It was expected to cross the Gulf of Mexico, strengthening to a Category 3 with winds of up to 130 mph.

Forecasters said that it could hit on Saturday morning almost anywhere along the Texas coast, with the most likely spot close to the Corpus Christi area.

Areas from Matagorda Bay to Corpus Christi and south to Brownsville - about 250 miles of coastline - were told to prepare for possible mandatory evacuation.

On Tuesday, Ike roared across Cuba, ravaging homes, killing at least four people and forcing 1.2 million to evacuate.

The Rio Grande Valley is still soggy from Dolly, which flooded the region, damaging hundreds of homes but killing no one. Many homes still have blue tarps on their roofs.

The Rio Grande Valley's residents are among those least equipped to handle hurricane flooding. It is one of the poorest parts of the country, with one-third of all families living below the poverty line, compared with 10 percent nationally.

Colonias, or ramshackle communities often lacking sewer systems and paved streets, dot the Valley. Even an ordinary rainstorm can fill yards with disease-ridden sewage from flooded septic tanks. Many of the poor lack health insurance.

Mexican officials said more than a dozen dams in the northern state of Chihuahua were at capacity or spilling over, heightening fears of flooding on the American side of the border.

Gov. Rick Perry declared 88 coastal counties disaster areas Monday to start the flow of state aid, and began preparing for an evacuation, lining up "buses rather than body bags."

The Dallas-Fort Worth area sheltered about 3,000 Hurricane Gustav evacuees last week and is prepared for up to about 20,000 people this time, said Steve Griggs, a county official, according to the AP. The downtown convention center would again serve as the main shelter.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.
© Copyright 2008 Daily Toreador

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