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Governor Perry to evacuees: 'Be patient, stay put'

By J. Lyn Carl,

Austin, TX –

"Be patient, stay put."

That was the message Gov. Rick Perry had today for Texans who either evacuated ahead of Hurricane Rita earlier this week or who stayed behind and rode out the storm.

Rita came onshore earlier today east of Sabine Pass as a Category 3 hurricane. She has since been downgraded to Category 1, but is still packing heavy rains and up to 100 mile per hour winds. The worst could be yet to come as the storm moves slowly north, promising massive flooding in North and Northeast Texas if the storm stalls as predicted.

Perry said today that damage assessment teams have been sent into the affected areas along the coast as 10 mass care units are mobilizing. They include officials of the Salvation Army, American Red Cross, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), the National Guard and the U.S. military. Those groups are ensuring that those in the affected areas have food, water and ice.

When the wind and rain dies down, Perry said 18 air operations will be launched into 18 affected counties to establish direct communication with local officials and to ensure food, water, ice and medical care are provided. Integrated ground support teams that include officials of the Army National Guard, the U.S. Army, DPS and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) are participating in the operation of a staging area at the Astrodome in Houston.

Perry said it appears that Houston and Galveston were spared from the damages it was initially thought would occur there. He urged Texans in those areas to "remain in their homes and places of safety" as there are still concerns over flooding, fallen trees and limbs and other debris, all of which he described as "dangerous."

Reports will be forthcoming from Southeast Texas, said Perry, but state and federal officials remain concerned about high winds, torrential rains and flooding throughout Texas as the storm moves north.

"I can't say this in strong enough terms to those who evacuated the coastal regions, said the governor, "that they should not begin to return for the time being." He said officials have not completed assessing damages and thus cannot assure that affected communities are safe for return. He said officials need to restock fuel along the evacuation route, as the fuel supply on those routes was depleted when 2.7 million coastal region Texans evacuated north. He said stores in the affected areas also need to be given time to restock for the return of citizens.

Perry also said state officials want to avoid the same traffic gridlock that occurred when the evacuation began, where major roadways were filled with miles and miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic moving inches at a time, causing many motor vehicles to run out of gas en route to safety.

"Please stay where you are," said Perry, who also announced the state officials are working with local officials on a plan to stagger the return of the more than 2.7 million Texans who evacuated from the coastal area. He said the state also is working with local school districts to have school closures on Monday and perhaps even Tuesday to facilitate the return of evacuees.

"The bottom line," said the governor, "is if you're in a safe place with food, water and bedding, you're better staying there for the time being."

Many who evacuated from the Houston-Galveston area to Austin were not heeding the governor's call, as U.S. 290 headed east toward Houston was bumper-to-bumper heading out of Austin already today. That traffic gridlock also could hinder emergency crews heading to the affected areas in Southeast Texas to assist with the recovery.

Because response teams will be heading to Northeast Texas to assist with recovery efforts there, the state will not have a chance to institute a contra-flow plan as it did earlier in the week when southbound lanes of Interstate 10 and Interstate 45 and U.S. 290 were opened to northbound traffic.

The governor promised more specific plans for evacuees soon, but reminded there are still dangerous conditions in East Texas. "Now is not the time for Texans to let their guard down and venture out," he said. He said heavy rainfall in East Texas and Northeast Texas is going to cause severe flooding and efforts are under way to restore power to affected areas.

Jack Colley, director of the State Emergency Operations Center (SOC) said state officials maintained contact with local officials in the affected areas throughout the night last night and many report loss of power, a lot of debris on roadways and loss of water and sewer systems. He, too, urged evacuees to wait for word from state and local officials before they begin returning to their homes.

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