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‘Hurricane fatigue’ sets in as Gulf Coast eyes Ike

With powerful Hurricane Ike on an uncertain course toward the Gulf of Mexico, many on the low-lying Florida Keys took a wait-and-see approach to evacuating Sunday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

With powerful Hurricane Ike on an uncertain course toward the Gulf of Mexico, many on these low-lying islands took a wait-and-see approach to evacuating Sunday, perhaps a harbinger of attitudes to come from Gulf Coast residents returning from an arduous evacuation and already showing signs of "hurricane fatigue."

Forecasts show Ike, which weakened to a Category 2 early Monday, bearing down on Cuba and skirting Key West early Tuesday on a trek to the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, on its way to a landfall late in the week somewhere between the Florida Panhandle and the Texas coast.

And once again, New Orleans — still recovering from the weaker-than-expected Gustav — is squarely in the crosshairs.

A tropical storm warning was issued for the Florida Keys early Monday.

In Key West, evacuation orders became mandatory Sunday for tourists and the approximately 25,000 residents alike, but traffic off the lone highway from the island was steady rather than jammed.

Mike Tilson, 24, was preparing to ride Ike out in his houseboat, only planning to evacuate if the storm takes a sudden turn to the north.

"I got tarps and champagne," he said as he pushed a wheelbarrow of supplies including Heineken beer, ice and a loaf of bread down the dock.

"It's just a good party. I'll stay."

Thousands told to leave
As of 5 a.m. EDT Monday, Ike was a Category 2 storm with maximum sustained winds near 105 mph. Forecasters expected further weakening as the hurricane moves over central Cuba on Monday.

The hurricane was centered about 40 miles east-southeast of Camaguey, Cuba, and moving west near 15 mph.

President Bush declared a state of emergency for Florida because of Ike on Sunday and ordered federal money to supplement state and local response efforts.

Key West Mayor Morgan McPherson said 15,000 tourists had already evacuated the region, and the Key West airport was set to close Sunday night.

McPherson warned that anyone who thinks staying through a major hurricane is "champagne time" hasn't thought it through clearly. He said emergency vehicles would be pulled off the road if the area gets tropical storm force winds.

Wait-and-see approach
Still, many residents of the nation's most southernmost city said they wanted to see what the storm does over Cuba and possibly reassess on Monday.

Among them was Claudia Pennington, 61, director of the Key West Art and Historical Society, who said she's staying to care for the group's three buildings and their contents. Don Guess, 50, was putting up plywood on a friend's house Sunday and said he was sticking around because the storm didn't worry him.

At the Key West Convalescent Center, 70 sick and elderly residents were being evacuated by bus and ambulance to Sunrise on Sunday afternoon.

Edward Koen, 87, sat in his wheelchair outside the center Sunday in the shade, staring up at the blue, sunny skies, waiting for the bus.

"Why should I be nervous, because of a hurricane?" Koen said. He'd rather stay put. "My gosh. I've been living here all my life."

New Orleans residents may balk
The reluctance to leave didn't surprise Hugh Gladwin, the director of the Institute for Public Opinion Research at Florida International University, who has studied evacuations in Florida and after Hurricane Katrina.

"Yes, there's always a certain number of people who won't evacuate no matter what: they're fatalistic — they like being in hurricanes," Gladwin said.

Gladwin said he's never seen more than 80 percent evacuation participation anywhere, even with the biggest and scariest hurricane bearing down. And it can be harder to get people to leave when they've evacuated recently.

That's the case in New Orleans, where many of the 2 million people who fled the Louisiana coast ahead of Gustav had only just returned from arduous evacuation. In many cases, jammed highways turned routine trips to such evacuee havens as Birmingham and Memphis into 15-hour crawls.

Some New Orleans residents were already digging in their heels ahead of Ike.

David Myers, a 39-year-old physician who rode out Gustav with relatives in Baton Rouge before returning home to New Orleans on Tuesday, said it would take a Category 4 or 5 storm to chase him away again. He expects many other residents who ran from Gustav to balk at evacuating for Ike.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said so-called "hurricane fatigue" should not prevent people there from leaving their homes for the second time in 10 days.

"We are likely going to have to become accustomed to evacuating more frequently than when we were younger," he said.

Christopher Gargiule, 37, said evacuating for Gustav cost him and his wife, Joanne, more than $1,500, and that they can't afford to leave again even if Ike forces another mandatory evacuation of the city. And they live in a house just 50 yards from a levee that had water splash over it during Gustav.

"We're going to have to hunker down and cross our fingers," Gargiule said.