Mayor Alan Tharling of Port Lavaca, a city on the Texas coast between Houston and Corpus Christi, is taking creative measures to make citizens take the threat of Hurricane Rita seriously.
Tharling says that the 1,000 or so die-hards who refuse to evacuate are being given permanent markers and asked to write their Social Security number, next of kin and a phone number on their arm or across their abdomen — so that returning officials can identify their bodies.
For the most part, Tharling has had few problems persuading residents to leave — Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and the New Orleans area almost four weeks ago, has made believers out of most Gulf Coast Texans. Many of the Port Lavaca’s 13,000 citizens have already packed up and were on their way by Wednesday night. Many more are still streaming out, joining other evacuees in traffic jams as they head inland.
And they have to go a quite a way. Because this part of the state is table-top flat, even the residents of Victoria, 24 miles from Port Lavaca, are being encouraged to move further inland.
Storm surge threat
The reason: storm surge. It’s hard to predict exactly what it will be, but it could be 20 feet high as it passes over the barrier islands. That would be then be magnified by the shallow bays that pocket this part of the Texas coast, meaning possible 30-to-35-foot waves hitting the town, which is only 18 feet above sea level.
The math is obvious. People could be swimming in their homes if they dare to stay.
But some so far refuse to be persuaded. Mayor Tharling told the story of one elderly woman he helped move from a second-floor home to a one-story apartment, but who refused to leave. She said she had lived a good long life and that if her time was up, her time was up. The mayor said he will try to encourage her to leave again before they shut down the town.
After that, the holdouts will be on their own. Fire departments up and down the coast are telling residents that they have to be responsible for their own safety if they choose to stay. Once sustained winds reach 45 miles an hour, first responders will be gone, concerned for their own safety as well as that of their families.
Threat to economy
Tharling says that he is also worried about what the storm could do to the oil industry.
The mayor used to work offshore on rigs and on tug boats, so he knows what he is talking about. You can look at the horizon from Port Lavaca and see natural gas and oil rigs, as well as production platforms, dotting the Gulf of Mexico.
He said that he once rode out a hurricane on a tug boat and felt he “survived by the grace of God.”
For his community's sake, he's hoping for the same this time.