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Evacuees seek shelter as rain starts to fall

Hotel rooms are scarce in places as thousands flee the coast, and the memories of riding out Katrina are acute.

September 01, 2008|Ann M. Simmons and Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writers

GULFPORT, MISS. — The first stirrings of Hurricane Gustav on Mississippi's coast showed up late Sunday in the ominous rain that pelted down along Highway 49. The rain was accompanied by the drenched, forlorn Louisiana evacuees who showed up in hotel lobbies desperate for a place to stay.

Desperation was just as palpable on the other side of the projected hurricane zone, in Beaumont, Texas. There, thousands of residents were joining the auto caravans snaking eastward, leaving a nearly emptied ghost town for the Louisiana refugees who fled behind them.

With the 440-mile-wide storm advancing on Louisiana and primed to barrel inland, the state's immediate neighbors, Mississippi and Texas, were thrust into their own frantic versions of hurricane fever.

"I'm nervous and anxious," said Fatima Carter, 18, a college student who survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and found herself stuck in a Gulfport ice skating rink Sunday night, waiting with a friend to be evacuated by bus to Jackson. "We don't know what [Gustav] might do."

Carter and her friend April Atkinson, 19, were among 1,000 evacuees who were waiting to board buses Sunday night at the rink.

The two community college students had been on vacation in Gulfport and were quickly caught up in the tumult caused by the approaching hurricane.

"I was crying," said Atkinson, who added that she fears for the safety of her two brothers and a sister who still had not evacuated their coastal Mississippi home -- hours before authorities said it would be too late to drive out.

While some Mississippi residents headed out from Gulfport, bone-weary Louisianans were arriving in the rain, anxious for a place to stay.

At the Hampton Inn, JoAnn Sam-Pang, dampened by the rain, dashed up to the reception desk.

"Do you have any rooms?" she asked.

"All we have are rooms with a king bed in them," said Lisa Couch, the hotel's general manager.

"Who cares? It can be a room without a bed," said a gleeful Sam-Pang, who had arrived from Kenner, La., with her husband, Gustavo; three children, James, Amie and Michael; and their black Labrador retriever.

Couch said the hotel didn't normally accommodate pets, "but we do today."

The Sam-Pangs had just moved back into their newly renovated Kenner home in May after living a year in a hotel and almost two years in a trailer after Katrina flooded their home of 28 years.

James Sam-Pang, an engineering student at the University of New Orleans, said he wasn't sure whether he would want to return to rebuild their home if Gustav destroyed it.

"It's really hard to deal with," he said. His sister Amie said she couldn't face living in a trailer again.

Some 7,000 people were still living in trailers in Mississippi as a result of Katrina, the majority of them in Hancock and Harrison counties, said Jim Pollard of the Harrison County Emergency Management Agency.

Flight was also the order of the day in Beaumont, where a mandatory evacuation of the 114,000 residents was issued early Sunday morning.

Beaumont took a tough strike from Hurricane Rita in 2005. By afternoon, deja vu seemed to be approaching: SUVs, pickup trucks and cars with suitcases and jugs of gasoline strapped to their rooftops were leaving town. Gas stations, churches and a store had boarded up windows.

An emergency command center was set up at the Ford Arena, with ambulances, police and military prepared to dispatch to crisis areas.

A local Holiday Inn, which took a brutal hit during Rita, was one of the only places still open.

Staff members and their families stayed in the hotel, along with some residents and arriving evacuees from Louisiana.

"When God comes and takes you away, it's your time," said Roderick Rocquemora, 20, whose mother works in the kitchen at the hotel.

He smoked cigarettes outside, saying he planned to hunker down in his room once Gustav hits.

"I will be looking out the window watching the signs fly and the trees come up," said his friend Danyel Victoria, 16, whose mother works at the front desk.

As many as 55,000 Louisiana residents were expected to flock to shelters, hotels and emergency centers across Texas.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice evacuated more than 3,000 inmates in Beaumont to other cities.

Two charter bus drivers waited on call nearby to pick up dozens of ExxonMobil employees being evacuated from a Beaumont facility.

Driver Patrick Guillory, 51, said he remembered evacuating residents during Katrina, and said the response this time has been far better.

Lloyd Lee, 48, a maintenance worker, said he had lived through so many natural disasters they no longer frightened him. He sent his ailing mother out of town and huddled with his German shepherd, Lobo.

"Now it's just me and my dog," he said.

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ann.simmons@latimes.com

erika.hayasaki@latimes.com

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Simmons reported from Gulfport and Hayasaki from Beaumont.

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