Galveston nearly empty as Rita approaches

The walls of Seawall Boulevard are lashe
John McKenna goes for a run Friday as waves lash Seawall Boulevard in Galveston, Texas. McKenna, 49, tried to evacuate the city, only to return after spending 15 hours traveling 61 miles.James Nielsen / AFP / Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

Galveston, Texas — The waves off Galveston were angry and growing larger with each passing hour on Friday afternoon. Hurricane Rita was bearing down on the Gulf Coast, but there wouldn't be many residents on hand in this island community to greet her.

The streets were empty. We'd found only one retail business open here. Fortunately, it was a restaurant. A quick mart, more accurately, one where the owner makes a mean barbecue beef sandwich.

A mandatory evacuation order was in effect, and the people who call this piece of coastal Texas their home had followed it. The mayor believed more than 90 percent of Galveston's residents had left for someplace safer. But for all those who followed orders, a handful had not. Police arrested several looters on the west side of the island, and they said they would be diligent in trying to protect personal property.

The police and fire departments had moved out of their offices and into the San Luis hotel, a  luxury property that the city is using as its emergency response center. The parking lot was full of vehicles topped with sirens. The only other cars left on the island belong to news crews. They're easy to spot, because they've got red containers filled with extra gas strapped tightly to their roofs.

'I'm not going anywhere'
Galveston is a tourist down, filled with hotels and restaurants, but it's also home to more than 60,000 people. Some have lived here all their lives, like 80-year-old Harris Monaghan.

"I've only been off the island a few times," he told me as he walked along the island's seawall on Friday. "I'm not going anywhere. Run from what? I've never run from a storm, and I'm not going to start now."

He told us he had enough food and a safe place to stay. Galveston officials hoped there weren't many who made a similar choice.

There was hope the seawall will protect this town, a city that has been dealt a bad blow by Mother Nature before. The year was 1900. Between 6,000 and 12,000 lost their lives in Galveston in the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history.

Rita was packing a dangerous punch, with high winds and heavy rains. But residents were hoping she will not bring Galveston to its knees. They've already been there.

Janet Shamlian is an NBC News correspondent covering hurricane Rita in Galveston.