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1.5 million Texans inching out of coastal areas ahead of hurricane

By J. Lyn Carl,

Austin, TX –

As miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic herald the approaching of Category 4 Hurricane Rita to the Texas Gulf Coast, state officials and agencies are scurrying to ensure the safety of Texas coastal residents - both those who are fleeing and those who are staying behind.

The Governor's Emergency Management Council is on Level One alert status, the highest level since the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.

U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas is working to ensure officials at the local, state and federal levels are coordinated as preparations are made for Hurricane Rita.

"We must be precise in our preparedness and rapid in our response," Sen. Hutchison said. "I am working around the clock to ensure the response on all levels will be swift and thorough."

Hutchison said she has spoken with White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, FEMA Director R. David Paulison and Michael Jackson, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to ensure communication lines are open and expressed her concern that emergency responders are ready to act swiftly if needed.

Motorists headed out of the Houston-Galveston-Corpus Christi region are finding themselves facing traffic that is inching northward, sometimes at a rate of one mile per hour. Many vehicles are reported running out of gas in route from coastal areas and some gas stations report supplies of gas dwindling.

Gov. Rick Perry today told those who might be stuck in that traffic, "Stay calm. Stay patient. You're doing the right thing."

The governor said the evacuation of approximately 1.5 million coastal residents will take time. "You will get out of there," he said to those evacuating. "It's just going to take us some time."

Perry called the evacuation "historic," adding that despite the bumper-to-bumper traffic, the evacuation is "on schedule" and all evacuees are expected to be able to stay ahead of the storm because the evacuation started early.

Those areas being evacuated had "no choice but to evacuate," said Jack Colley, Director of the State's Emergency Operations Center in Austin that is responsible for directing the state's response and coordinating the local response to emergencies. The evacuation of some areas that might eventually not even be in the path of the storm was mandated "because of the uncertainty of it," said Colley. "The risk is too high."

On the order of Perry, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is positioning gas tanker trucks along evacuation routes to assist motorists whose vehicles run out of gas as they attempt to evacuate. The governor said the U.S. Department of Defense is also participating in this effort along Interstate 10, Interstate 45 and U.S. 290. Because of the more than one million Texas coastal residents fleeing the storm, Perry also directed TxDOT to open Interstate 10 and Interstate 45 to allow motorists to travel north in both the north and southbound lanes.

Texas Department of Public Safety troopers have been stationed along evacuation routes to assist with traffic flow.

Heeding lessons learned from the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, which along with levees that broke, decimated the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, and other coastal towns and cities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, Texas officials have been making preparations for the storm as soon as it appeared there was a possibility it could strike the Texas coast.

On Monday, Perry summoned some 1,200 Texas National Guard members, the Texas Task Force One team and other emergency personnel and equipment back to Texas from Louisiana in anticipation of the hurricane and its aftermath. Some 5,000 Texas Army National Guard personnel were activated to support storm preparation efforts. Another 500 Texas State Guard members were activated to assist the American Red Cross with shelter management.

Since then, the governor has requested an additional 10,000 military personnel from the federal government to assist in search and rescue and law enforcement activities once the hurricane makes landfall. Galveston County was the first area to institute a mandatory evacuation. The evacuation of that county of more than 260,000 began Wednesday, but many Galveston County residents fled ahead of the mandatory order. When predictions Thursday that the storm, which increased overnight from a Category 2 to Category 5 hurricane, would hit between Houston and Galveston, more Texans from those two cities began moving inland. The storm has now been downgraded to Category 4 and is approximately 600 miles wide. It is the largest hurricane to ever threaten the Texas coast and the third largest hurricane in recorded history.

The Texas evacuation is being hindered by the fact that many inland cities already are sheltering evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, which hit three weeks ago further north along the coast. Many motel and hotel rooms that would have been available for evacuees were already taken up by Katrina evacuees. Thus many evacuees ahead of Rita are having to go further inland. The result is an increasing number of shelters, most of which are filling up rapidly.

In Austin, four shelters were full by mid-afternoon, with another scheduled to open up soon.

In anticipation of the storm, some 9,000 individuals from Houston and Beaumont who require special assistance are being air lifted to safe sites. All leave requests by state employees who are certified disaster service volunteers of the American Red Cross have been granted by the governor so they can assist with storm preparations. State troopers have been going door-to-door to special needs facilities to ensure that everyone in those facilities is evacuated. All state-run facilities, even Texas prison facilities that might be in the path of the storm, were evacuated. Additionally, the Department of State Health Services has 40,000 tetanus vaccine doses on hand in Austin if needed.

In addition to providing for the safety of its citizens, the state also is seeking to safeguard and secure critical gas and petrochemical industry locations. Some may shut down completely, while others will remain operational.

Texas is operating under a disaster declaration issued by Perry, who also asked President George W. Bush to approve a disaster declaration and provide for 100 percent reimbursement for Texas communities that are responding to the disaster.

State officials also are preparing for the aftermath of the storm, with DPS troopers already beginning pre-staging along evacuation corridors to be sent into the area as soon as the storm has passed, while water, ice and other essentials are being pre-positioned in the San Antonio area to be sent to affected areas as quickly after the storm hits as is safe. Immediate care strike teams consisting of the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the Texas Army National Guard are being readied and the State's Emergency Operations Center is preparing for inland flooding by pre-positioning water rescue teams and for the potential of tornadoes in inland areas.

The State Emergency Operations Center is holding regular conference calls several times a day with local, state and federal officials. Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas, who ordered a mandatory evacuation of her city, said she has spoken both to Perry and to a liaison between the state and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, asking for 1,500 National Guard troops and two search and rescue units to be dispatched "immediately" after the storm makes landfall.

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