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In Ike's wake, holdouts complicate rescues

More than 100,000 in Texas and Louisiana are estimated to have refused hurricane evacuation orders.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 15, 2008

Waterlogged: A confused cow refuses to move for a National Guard Humvee along Highway 27 in lower Louisiana, near Sabine Pass. Farmers tried to move livestock to higher ground.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor

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A convoy of National Guard trucks – flanked by Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife airboats and "Cajun special" flat-bottomed boats – pressed toward this small cattle town, fighting precarious winds, rough chop, and a snake-infested flood to reach hundreds of holdout farmers and roughnecks, many with no intention of getting rescued.

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"About 300 stayed in Hackberry," says irritated Robert Swire, Cameron Parish sheriff's deputy, who is manning a checkpoint where Highway 27 disappeared under water some 20 miles from the Gulf. "They shouldn't have done that."

Hurricane Ike devastated much of Galveston, popped windows out of Houston high-rises, and left as many as 5 million people without power on its way to becoming what President Bush called "a major disaster."

But as the storm slowly crawled northward, rescue and relief crews faced a formidable task: Surveying more than 2,000 square miles of newly created sea in lower Louisiana and along the Sabine Pass on the Texas border, dotted with dozens of small towns, hamlets, and settlements.

While some 2.3 million people in Texas and Louisiana evacuated, more than 100,000 are estimated to have refused voluntary and mandatory evacuation orders along Ike's 200-mile surge zone.

Thankfully, there were few injury and fatality reports as the federal government led a massive rescue and relief effort that included Coast Guard reconnaissance helicopters, dozens of airboats, and massive National Guard assets ranging from inflatable Zodiac boats to Humvees, as well as thousands of troops.

By Sunday, the Category 2 hurricane had been downgraded to a tropical depression. Still, some 2.5 million people in the two states were left without electrical power, officials said, and it could be weeks before some regain power.

Despite storm preparations, many independent-minded residents in Louisiana's low-lying cattle, oil, and shrimp country refused to abandon their homes, even as the massive floodwaters surged into the upper bayous.

While Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff chided residents for staying, the truth on the ground was ambiguous. Despite stern warnings, many people were simply surprised by the massive surge.

"This was much worse than Rita, water wise," said Ken Wagner of the 256 Infantry Combat Brigade of the Louisiana National Guard. "It became very challenging for people. It also carried a lot of risk" for rescuers.

From Orange County, Texas, to Cameron County, La., the US Coast Guard, National Guard units, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service conducted over 1,000 rescues, but were turned back as often as not by residents determined to hang on as the worst floodwaters since 1913 clung to the Cajun prairie.