GALVESTON, Texas — Taking a cue from the suffering in New Orleans, officials called for a voluntary evacuation of this island city as Hurricane Rita threatened to slam into the Texas Coast by this weekend.
Officials also took steps to fly some Hurricane Katrina refugees in Texas shelters to Arkansas.
This month marks the 105th anniversary of the hurricane that wiped out Galveston in one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history. An estimated 8,000 people were killed.
Rita, approaching the Florida Keys, was upgraded to a hurricane Tuesday morning when sustained wind reached 75 mph.
Gov. Rick Perry on Monday recalled all emergency personnel helping with recovery from Hurricane Katrina to prepare for Rita, including almost 1,200 Texas National Guard members.
“We’re preparing for potential inland flooding and tornadoes by prepositioning water rescue teams,” governor’s office spokeswoman Kathy Walt said Tuesday.
Houston prone to flooding
Authorities stressed that those fleeing the coastal area should bypass Houston, which Mayor Bill White noted could lose power and is prone to flooding, and drive on to Dallas, San Antonio or Austin.
Harris County Judge Robert Eckels warned that the Houston Astrodome, which temporarily sheltered tens of thousands of Katrina refugees, could not be used if a storm headed that way because of its glass roof.
Katrina refugees still in Houston-area shelters were to be flown on commercial airliners to Arkansas starting Tuesday afternoon. Many evacuees have moved from shelters to private housing.
“We could potentially be looking at taking an enormous amount of people from Houston,” Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said. “We’re going to have to prepare in the event. It would tax us if we had to, but we would do it.”
Arkansas already is home to about 50,000 Katrina evacuees, most of them staying with friends and relatives.
Officials in Galveston, which is some 40 miles southeast of Houston, said residents should begin leaving Tuesday.
“Today is boarding up and decision day for Galvestonians,” city spokeswoman Mary Jo Naschke said Tuesday morning.
Buses headed to shelters
Buses were to begin running Tuesday for people who can’t leave on their own, taking them to shelters about 100 miles north in Huntsville. About 250 people had already made reservations for the bus as of noon Monday, Naschke said.
Residents may take pets in cages along on the buses, Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said. “We found that so many people didn’t want to leave New Orleans because they didn’t want to leave their pets behind,” she said.
Officials said a mandatory evacuation could be ordered if Rita strengthens into a Category 3 hurricane, with wind of up to 130 mph and the potential to create flooding up to 8 miles inland.
The approaching storm was affecting offshore oil operations, already hobbled by Katrina damage. Chevron Corp., Shell Oil and BP all began evacuating employees.
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