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Citing faith and fate, some plan to ride out Ike

Despite warnings of 'certain death,' these residents remain. They are told to write their names on their arms, help identify bodies.

September 14, 2008|Allen G. Breed | Associated Press

SURFSIDE BEACH, TEXAS — At first, even the threat of "certain death" was not enough to persuade Bobby Taylor to flee this small town directly in the path of Hurricane Ike.

His wife, Elizabeth, had already decided to leave before police drove a dump truck through flooded streets, urging people to get out. Those who refused were told to write their names on their arms in black marker, so their bodies could be identified later.

Elizabeth came back to persuade her husband to leave and was waiting for him when he waded in waist-deep water up the main street, towing a blue kayak. She greeted him joyously. "Now I'll pray for our neighbors," she said.

More than a million people evacuated southeast Texas ahead of Ike. But citing faith and fate, roughly 90,000 in three counties ignored calls to clear out, coastal authorities said. The National Weather Service warned that people in smaller structures in some areas "may face certain death."

The choice to stay -- always questionable, sometimes fatal -- was an especially curious one to make so close to Galveston, site of a 1900 storm that killed at least 6,000 people, more than any other natural disaster in U.S. history.

By Friday afternoon, Mayor Larry Davison said only one person was believed to be left in Surfside Beach, a Gulf Coast town of about 800 people 30 miles southwest of Galveston.

Davison said authorities had been told the man had left, but later saw him on his porch. He had no phone.

"When we finally saw him, it was too late to get back in there," the mayor said. "We had to retreat."

A mandatory evacuation order was in place, but there were no signs anyone was being forcibly removed.

"We're not going to drag them out of there and handcuff them," Davison said. "They've made their decision."

Forecasters said Ike could become a Category 3 hurricane with winds of at least 111 mph before it hit the coast late Friday or early today. By Friday, towering waves had already crashed over the 17-foot Galveston seawall and floodwaters were rising in low-lying areas.

It was enough to persuade the Taylors' neighbors to relent. David Fields, 45, and wife Dondi, 50, had written their Social Security numbers on their arms. Dondi Fields added "I (heart) U" on her right arm -- for her kids, she said.

"We didn't want anybody to have to risk their life to come and get us," Dondi Fields said.

Nearby Freeport was all but deserted, and quiet except for the increasingly roiling sea. Truck driver Darryl Jones Sr. and neighbor Keith Glover talked about the impending hurricane without concern. Nearly everyone around them had obeyed a mandatory evacuation order.

"I'm just enjoying the serenity, really," said Jones, 48, sitting in his electric golf cart. "You never know what the aftermath might hold, but right now it's very peaceful."

Glover, who works for the nearby city of Clute, will work removing debris after the storm, but said he would have stayed anyway.

"Worrying's a sin," he said.

At By George Automotive repair shop, owner George Elizondo and others in Freeport gathered to grill chicken leg quarters and shoulder steak to eat with tortillas with pico de gallo. Coolers from the nearby grocery store sat filled with soda and beer.

The hurricane block party tradition began with Hurricane Rita in 2005, when Elizondo and others stayed behind to offer mechanical help to anyone those heading out.

"If it really gets bad, we'll get in our trucks and we'll drive out," Elizondo said. "Where's the burden in that? We're driving, we're ahead of the storm and there's no one on the road. There's no danger for us."

Water already covered one low-lying road in Freeport near refineries and a listing shrimp boat. The road became an attraction for those who stayed. Truck after truck pulled up, drivers jumping out with video cameras in hand. One woman leaned comically into the wind, smiling for the camera.

"It's going to be fun," Jerry Norton said as he snapped a cell phone image of the flooded road. He said he was sending the picture to his children and grandchildren who fled inland to Austin.

Norton said he had filled his bathtubs with water -- for drinking, but also for flushing toilets in case the sewer system breaks down. He bought groceries and secured doors and windows.

"If my stuff is going to get washed away, I'm going to watch it get washed away," Norton said.

Some who stayed behind in Galveston relied on faith. Retiree William Steally, 75, said he was planning to ride it out, but his wife and sister-in-law left Thursday.

"She got scared and they left. I told them I believe in the man up there, God," Steally said as he pointed to the sky. "I believe he will take care of me."

Others quieted their own concerns and rolled with it.

Clarence Romas, a 55-year-old handyman, said he would ride out the storm in his downstairs apartment with friends.

As for the "certain death" warning? "It puts a little fear in my heart," he admitted, "but what's gonna happen is gonna happen."

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