Gustav misses SE Texas; Area prepared for the worst

Marilyn Tennissen Sep. 2, 2008, 8:10am

Many businesses, like this florist shop on Calder Avenue in Beaumont, took necessary precautions before Hurricane Gustav.

As Hurricane Gustav swelled to wind speeds of 145 mph and had a possible landfall anywhere from the upper Texas coast to east of New Orleans, emergency management officials from local, state and federal agencies were taking no chances.

A mandatory evacuation was called for Southeast Texas on Aug. 30, but by that time thousands of residents had already headed along evacuation routes to the north. Travel was fairly smooth, officials reported, with no repeat of the bumper-to-bumper marathon that left thousands stranded on the roadside during the 2005 evacuation for Hurricane Rita.

Many locals headed west instead of north, and joined thousands fleeing from Louisiana resulting in serious bottlenecks along Interstate 10. The Texas Department of Transportation said I-10 was not a designated evacuation route for Southeast Texas, but as weather officials predicted Gustav to stall out over East Texas, the Houston and Austin areas seemed to many a better choice for the evacuation and for an extended Labor Day weekend. News reports said the usual 90 minute drive to Houston was taking about four hours on Saturday.

Busloads of residents that had no transportation of their own were taken to designated shelters, with more than 3,300 Southeast Texans reported to be sheltering in Tyler and another 1,600 in Lufkin.

Hundreds of nursing home residents and around 500 patients with special medical needs were evacuated on buses and some were airlifted on military transports out of the Southeast Texas Regional Airport. For Hurricane Gustav, evacuees were given an ID bracelet and scanned as they got on and off buses to avoid the nightmare of trying to locate evacuated family members after Hurricane Rita.

Christus Health facilities in Beaumont and Port Arthur evacuated their patients, as did the Medical Center of Southeast Texas.

A total of about 6,000 residents had been taken by bus or plane from Jefferson, Orange and Hardin counties, according to officials.

More than 700 local residents were housed at Huntsville High School and at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. Austin newspapers reported that three shelters there were filled to capacity, with medical needs being cared for at the Austin Convention Center. The San Antonio Express-News reported that most of the 700 evacuees in that city were from the Beaumont area.

With the city of Beaumont nearly empty over the weekend, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department stepped up patrols and the Beaumont Police Department reported four times the normal manpower on each shift to protect the homes and businesses vacated by the evacuation order. No curfew was ordered in Beaumont, but police officials in Port Arthur issued a dusk-to-dawn curfew and Mid-Jefferson County communities urged residents that stayed behind to stay inside and away from public areas from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Officials did report some break-ins at homes in the Port Arthur and Mid County areas, and some convenience stores burglarized in Beaumont and a community center in Orange was also hit.

City and county governments maintained critical personnel, with offices remaining closed for general employees until Thursday.

Soldiers and airmen with the Texas National Guard were staged and ready to move into the Beaumont-Port Arthur area if Gustav shifted westward and made landfall in Texas. Gov. Rick Perry authorized up to 5,000 Texas military soldiers and airmen to provide support to areas hit by the storm, with headquarters in College Station.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency set up a regional response center in Denton, where they coordinated preparations for Texas and Louisiana, a press release said.

Locally, the Jefferson County entertainment complex at Ford Park became a staging center for hundreds of FEMA contracted ambulances and buses. Ambulances from across the state and locations as far as Nebraska and Arizona were ready to respond to any disaster area on the coast.

The Jefferson County Correctional Facility was not evacuated, but media reports said more than 3,000 inmates were moved from the LeBlanc units and the Gist State Jail. Offenders at the Stiles Unit were expected to shelter at the facility, because it can withstand the weather, according to a news release.

Several of the local petrochemical facilities reduced production and sent home non-essential personnel on Saturday, including Motiva. The Beaumont Enterprise reported that the Valero facilities in Port Arthur, Houston and Texas City were operating at reduced rates, and that the company's refinery near New Orleans was shut down, but appeared to have no significant structural damage.

Southeast Texas -- and New Orleans -- was spared from what was once a strong Category 4 storm, as the storm made landfall in central Louisiana as a Category 2 with 100 mph winds.

The mandatory evacuation was lifted at 6 a.m. Tuesday, and officials began the process of bringing home the evacuees.

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