Gulf Coast residents apply lesson from first superstorm: Get out

Taking a cue from Katrina, Texans are loading up cars and heading north ahead of Rita's expected landfall.

It may have been because it was the state's first-ever mandatory evacuation. It may have been because Katrina was still so fresh in the minds of Gulf Coast residents. Or it may have been the fact that hurricane Rita was being hailed as the most powerful storm to hit the Texas coast since the Great Storm of 1900 wiped out half of Galveston Island.

But whatever the reasons, tens of thousands of people heeded the warnings and evacuated well ahead of the storm. Galveston, for instance, a coastal city with a population of 58,000, was almost a ghost town a full three days before Rita was scheduled to make landfall.

"Normally, we see people begin to make preparations about 48 hours before a hurricane hits," says Margaret O'Brien-Molina, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross in its southwest region.

But four days before Rita was to come ashore, she says, "gas was starting to dwindle in some areas and stores were jammed with people getting ready. They are taking it very seriously - mainly because of hurricane Katrina."

Earlier this week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) declared the state a disaster area and residents in several coastal communities were under mandatory evacuations for the first time in the history of the state.

And while everyone agreed Rita is a massive storm, no one could get the New Orleans disaster out of their minds. To avoid the same mistakes, coastal hospitals and nursing homes were evacuated days beforehand, school buses were moved to higher ground, and residents with no means to help themselves were shuttled to shelters far inland.

In Galveston alone, some 2,500 residents were taken from the island in public transportation.

"Katrina gave everyone permission to act very proactively," says Craig Brown, surveying his boarded-up coffee house in Galveston's oldest commercial building downtown. "And we along the Gulf Coast don't usually have that type of attitude."

On the more vulnerable west side of the island, Patti and Bob Finch were hurriedly finishing their hurricane preparations before heading to Dallas to wait out the storm. They'd shuttered their house on stilts, packed up their family heirlooms, emptied out their refrigerator, shut off the power and water, and gassed up their two vehicles.

"I've lived on the Gulf Coast practically all my life. And this is the first time I've seen this much effort go into an evacuation," says Mr. Finch, wiping the sweat from his brow. "I think Katrina made the public officials more aware of the importance of their role in the preparations."

Nearby, Yvette and Lee Gleghorn were also scrambling to pack up and get out.

"This is the first time we are taking things we don't want to replace," says Ms. Gleghorn as she pushes an end table into the back of their pickup truck.

"Everybody's scared after Katrina. I think we've finally learned our lesson."

Indeed, many of these Texas communities have been playing host to Katrina evacuees and are seeing and hearing firsthand what their eastern neighbors went through. It's been a learning experience for everyone.

Now, thousands of these evacuees are being moved again - many for the third and fourth time. The remaining shelters in the Houston area, for instance, were closed this week and thousands of evacuees flown to Fort Chaffee, Ark., to be out of Rita's way. In addition, relief is being temporarily redirected from Louisiana and Mississippi to Texas.

"The last thing many of these people want to do is to move again," says Ms. O'Brien-Molina. "And it's really becoming a challenge because [our resources] are so strapped."

Most area Katrina evacuees have already found a new home or apartment - at least temporarily - and are settling into their new lives.

Almost 500 Katrina evacuees were living at the Moody Methodist Church shelter in Galveston until it closed after the last residents finally found housing. The last two were set to move into an island apartment this week, says the former shelter manager Nancy Peterson. But she has no idea what is going to happen to them now.

"They have already been through so much," says Ms. Peterson, who understands a little bit more of what they've had to endure.

She is overseeing the boarding up of her home along historic Broadway Street before heading out of town. Built in 1871, the family home has never been left in a hurricane - this will be the first time.

She is taking no chances, she says. "I learned from Katrina the need to be prepared for the worst."

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