McALLEN, Texas - Hurricane Ike grew to a Category 2 storm with 100 mph winds in the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, and officials in Texas weighed ordering a mandatory evacuation of 1 million people.
In Washington, President Bush on Wednesday took pre-emptive action by declaring an emergency in Texas and ordering federal officials to assist state and local agencies in preparing for Ike.
If Texas officials order a mandatory exodus, it would be the first large-scale evacuation in South Texas history. State and county officials let people decide for themselves whether to leave a hurricane area until just before Hurricane Rita struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. Now county officials can order people out of harm's way.
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The mandatory evacuation would affect the impoverished Rio Grande Valley, home to many immigrants who have traditionally been fearful of evacuating out of concern they could be deported if stopped by authorities. Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas said if an evacuation is ordered, county officials will visit immigrant neighborhoods and forcefully urge people to clear out.
After Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav, "there were a lot of immigrants who said, 'I'm not going to go,'" said Salinas, the county's top elected official. "It's going to be hard."
Federal authorities gave assurances they would not check people's immigration status at evacuation loading zones or inland checkpoints. But residents were skeptical, and there were worries that many illegal immigrants would refuse to board buses and go to shelters for fear of getting arrested and deported.
"People are nervous," said the Rev. Michael Seifert, a Roman Catholic priest and immigrant advocate. "The message that was given to me was that it's going to be a real problem."
One reason for the skepticism: Back in May, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the Border Patrol would do nothing to impede an evacuation in the event of a hurricane. But when Hurricane Dolly struck the Rio Grande Valley in late July, no mandatory evacuation was ordered, and as a result the Border Patrol kept its checkpoints open. Agents soon caught a van load of illegal immigrants.
Earlier Wednesday, mandatory evacuation orders were issued for several small coastal communities in Brazoria County, including Hideaway Gulf, Turtle Cove, Surfside, Quintana, Treasure Island and Rivers End.
Officials were keeping a close eye on Ike's path and warned that the rest of the county could be evacuated later on Wednesday.
Medically fragile Corpus Christi residents were urged to get out of harm's way with buses arranged to transport them to San Antonio.
And schools in the Corpus Christi area called off classes for Thursday and Friday, as well as weekend sports events.
Forecasters said Ike could hit on Saturday morning just about anywhere along the Texas coast, with the most likely spot close to the Corpus Christi area.
The latest projections show Ike skirting to the west of the main region for offshore production in the gulf, which provides a quarter of U.S. oil and 15 percent of its natural gas.
Texas officials were encouraging residents in the path of Hurricane Ike to do three things — listen to what local officials say, monitor weather reports and gas up, now.
"We have a fuel team that is part of the state operation system in Austin," said Allison Castle, spokeswoman for Perry. "They are helping to push fuel to hurricane areas. One of the lessons we learned from past hurricanes is we need to have fuel ready."
On Tuesday, Ike roared across Cuba, ravaging hundreds of homes, killing at least four people and forcing 1.2 million to evacuate.
At 2 p.m. ET, Ike was centered about 395 miles southeast from the mouth of the Mississippi River and moving west-northwest near 13 mph. It had grown from sustained 85 mph winds earlier Wednesday.
On Monday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry declared 88 coastal counties disaster areas to start the flow of state aid, and began preparing for an evacuation, lining up "buses rather than body bags."
Authorities lined up nearly 1,000 buses in case they are needed to move out the many poor and elderly people who have no cars.
The Dallas-Fort Worth area sheltered about 3,000 Hurricane Gustav evacuees last week and is prepared for up to about 20,000 people this time, said Steve Griggs, a county official. The downtown convention center would again serve as the main shelter. BATON ROUGE, La. -- The Gulf Coast watched anxiously as Hurricane Ike trudged toward areas still cleaning up after Gustav, with disasters pre-declared in much of eastern Texas and Louisianans urged to stock up — again — on supplies.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry spurred storm preparations with the declarations in 88 counties, and the National Hurricane Center warned the storm could make landfall this weekend in Texas — possibly not far from Corpus Christi. Perry also put 7,500 National Guard members on standby.
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However, storm paths are hard to predict several days in advance, and forecasters said the storm could come ashore anywhere from Louisiana to Mexico.
"While Hurricane Gustav is still fresh on the minds of coastal residents, we must now turn our attention to Hurricane Ike as it poses a potential threat to the Texas coast," said Perry, who also requested a presidential disaster declaration for the counties.
In Louisiana, where thousands remain without power after Hurricane Gustav hit last week, Gov. Bobby Jindal urged residents to start stockpiling food, water, batteries and other supplies. The state also was readying shelters and making plans for trains, buses and planes in case a coastal evacuation is called later in the week.
"It is still too early to be evacuating certainly, but it is not too early to be making sure you've got food and water and batteries. It's not too early to be checking your car," Jindal said.
The Federal Emergency Management agency was uncertain about the timing of evacuations along the coast. It would be at least 24 to 48 hours until officials have a clearer picture of Ike's intended path — and officials need to evacuate communities 48 hours before a storm's winds kick up.
"That puts us right in middle of when we should be moving people," Glenn Cannon, FEMA's head of disaster operations, said Monday.
Jindal said he doesn't anticipate the sort of mass evacuations forced by Gustav, which emptied out most of south Louisiana, including the New Orleans area. But even without a direct strike, the state's low-lying parishes could face strong tidal surges, tropical storm winds and heavy rains from the storm.
In southwestern Louisiana, Dick Gremillion of the Office of Emergency Preparedness for Calcasieu Parish, estimated that 80 percent of the parish's 185,000 residents left for Hurricane Gustav and officials were preparing in case evacuations are needed for Ike.
"We're hearing a lot about the public having evacuation fatigue. The main problem is financial. A lot of people just don't have to money to do it two weeks in a row," Gremillion said.
Florida Keys residents, meanwhile, breathed a sigh of relief that Ike had turned West. A hurricane watch for the island chain was discontinued Monday. Ike is still supposed to deliver heavy rain and wind to the islands and authorities suggested residents who had left stay away until Wednesday.
Businesses were not as cavalier. It was the second time in a month vacationers left en masse. Tourists also cleared out of the Keys last month ahead of Tropical Storm Fay, and their departure means a hit to the bottom line. Officials estimate tourists spend about $175 a day in the Keys. With some 20,000 having fled for Ike, that's about $3.5 million for each day they're gone.
"I think they called the guns out a little too soon. They killed business," said Deborah Dietrich, the manager of a nearly empty bakery. "Whether we have hurricane ruin or not, there's financial ruin."
Ike roared ashore in eastern Cuba Sunday night as a Category 3 hurricane, blowing homes to rubble and sending waves crashing over apartment buildings. By Monday afternoon when the storm weakened along the country's southern coast, 1.2 million Cubans had evacuated and at least four were dead.
At 5 a.m. EDT Tuesday, Ike was a Category 1 hurricane with maximum sustained winds near 80 mph. But forecasters said the hurricane was likely to strengthen when it moved into the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday. Ike was centered about 85 miles south-southeast of Cuba's capital, Havana, and moving west near 13 mph.
The storm first slammed into the Turks and Caicos and the southernmost Bahamas islands as a Category 4 hurricane that peeled off roofs and knocked down buildings. It also pelted Haiti, killing at least 61.