Defying Ike: Why 140,000 stayed behind

They weathered the hurricane against the orders of authorities, to protect their property and way of life

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Feathery prize: Johnny Welch, a Louisiana oil rig roughneck, rode out Ike out of concern for his property and his prize roosters.
Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
After the storm: Raymond Clostio sits atop his grandfather's wrecked boat, Daddy's Dream, in Hackberry, La.
Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
National Guardsmen work to reerect a monument to the survivors of hurricane Rita in 2005, which Ike knocked down.

Johnny Welch isn't afraid to admit that he put his life on the line in hurricane Ike for a rooster. Not just any rooster, mind you – a $1,500 Kentucky hatch, who wears his feathers like a king's crown.

Three years ago, after they'd evacuated for hurricane Rita, Mr. Welch and others waited nearly a week before authorities let them back into this unincorporated oil-and-fishing settlement in Cameron Parish. By then, all of Welch's prize chickens had died. "I was so angry I almost busted through the roadblock at that time, and I told myself I'd never let that happen again," he says.

After hurricane Ike pushed churning floodwaters 30 miles onto the so-called "Cajun prairie" of southwest Louisiana, National Guard and other rescue crews fought the elements for three days before reaching some 200 oil rig roughnecks, fishermen, and cattle farmers who ignored evacuation orders.

What rescuers found is an image that will confound and concern emergency managers everywhere after a historic storm where an estimated 140,000 people ignored dire warnings of "certain death" in the storm's path.

Despite vast devastation – boats on roads, trailers washed away, regional power outages – people emerged, waving their hands, welcoming, but hardly needing, the relief. So far, most of the 50 storm-related deaths have come far from the shore, although that could change as relief workers comb the vast debris fields.

Leaving can be worse than staying

"What this comes down to is that everybody's making judgments under lots of uncertainty, and everyone's making it differently," says Michael Lindell, an emergency management professor at Texas A&M University in College Station. "For some people, leaving can be worse than staying."

A strong current of individualism and self-reliance in American culture, distasteful memories of recent evacuations, a nascent survivalist movement sparked by Y2K and 9/11, and even youthful recklessness all play into why so many stayed for Ike, one of the most destructive storms in US history.

But down here on Moss Lake, Hackberry, a town of some 3,000 people and with an average annual income of $37,336, the calculation had less to do with foolhardiness and more with protecting property and animals.

"Survivin' is the name of the game down here," says storm rider Ernest Welch of Hackberry.

In fact, many of the holdouts here share a common distrust of government, intensified by a spate of recent hurricanes and ensuing political maneuvering about who can rebuild.

"There's a different mind-set, a different mentality with these people out here," says Brad Lester, an emergency medical technician in Hackberry. "There's a lot of people who'd rather die than be rescued by the government."

On Texas' Bolivar Peninsula, a mystery remains about some 150 people who have not yet been found after Ike cleared most beach town buildings off the sand. And, indeed, across the Texas and Louisiana coasts, many holdouts survived by the skin of their teeth, with one group of men in Texas carried 10 miles by the floodwaters as they held onto floating refrigerators. Across the area, authorities rescued more than 2,000 people by boat and helicopter, some with hurricane-force winds still blowing. There may yet be more survival stories to come.

Authorities are frustrated with the holdouts. Galveston County Judge Jim Yarbrough threatened martial law in order to get survivors off the island, but it didn't do much good since many hunkered down without TVs and radios, missing the warning.

In Galveston, an attempt to allow residents to return to the island was scrapped Tuesday as I-45 piled up with frustrated residents wanting to survey the damage. Meanwhile, 15,000 Galvestonians who stayed were busy cleaning up after the storm, mostly in good spirits despite lack of water and sewer facilities.

"What's happening in Galveston right now is that people who stayed are putting tarps on their roofs and those who did what the government wanted can't get back to their homes to minimize further damage," says Eliot Jennings, Galveston's former emergency management director.

Behind the bold storm warnings and descriptions of holdouts as "hardheaded," the government is quietly heeding the lesson of the storm riders. Despite damage that was in many cases worse than Rita, authorities in Louisiana began letting people back into the parish only two days after the storm. And in Texas, state officials have pushed more responsibility down to the county and city level, where officials are more in tune with local survivalist tendencies.

Fierce independence

"You have to remember that these are very strong individual-rights states where some people are just fiercely independent," says Mr. Jennings. "We have to acknowledge that a lot of rural people are more in tune with the land and nature and will be inclined to stay versus leaving."

Long-line fisherman Lonnie Beard rode out Ike in his wife's restaurant in Hackberry. He was glad he did. He watched as looters came across the floodwaters in small boats, going from house to house and emerging with plastic trash bags full of stuff.

"I stayed because I couldn't afford to leave," says Mr. Beard. "This is all I've got left, and I wasn't losing it, too."

Despite a life taking risks on offshore oil rigs, Johnny Welch says he doesn't ride out storms for the adventure. As soon as he can raise his house, put on a stronger roof, and build a hurricaneproof chicken house with self-feeders, he'll be content to call himself an evacuee when the next storm comes.

"All I want to do is go back to work and try to survive some more," he says.

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