Amid Rita Exodus, States Ask for Federal Troops

Traffic Leaving Houston

Thousands of of cars stream out of Houston, Sept. 22. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

As residents flee the Gulf Coast region, the governors of Texas and Louisiana ask President Bush for federal troops as they prepare for Hurricane Rita. The Category 4 storm is expected to make landfall by Saturday, and officials have urged coastal residents to evacuate far inland.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The governors of Texas and Louisiana are asking President Bush for federal troops as they prepare for Hurricane Rita. NPR's Carrie Kahn has more on how the two states are getting ready.

CARRIE KAHN reporting:

Taking no chances, Louisiana officials issued evacuation orders for low-lying areas of the Gulf and especially for residents in nursing homes. Governor Kathleen Blanco today asked the federal government to send 15,000 additional troops to the state before Hurricane Rita hits. And Blanco, citing the difficulty in identifying bodies, had this to say to anyone ignoring the orders.

Governor KATHLEEN BLANCO (Democrat, Louisiana): If some people insist on staying and believe that they can weather this kind of storm that perhaps they should write their Social Security numbers on their arms with indelible ink.

KAHN: Texas Governor Rick Perry also asked President Bush for 000 troops. He wants 10,000 stationed in the state for rescue and recovery operations expected after the storm.

More than a million Texans, however, aren't waiting around. Since yesterday, they've been trying to move north, but it's not be easy. The interstates from Galveston through Houston are jammed. If Houstonians complained about traffic before, they have a story to tell now. The backup of cars stretches more than 100 miles. Governor Perry asked motorists to keep calm.

Governor RICK PERRY (Republican, Texas): Again, I urge everyone to exercise patience. I know there's going to be a lot of frustration out there, being stuck in the type of traffic gridlock that is even monumental in Houston standards, so this evacuation is historic in its proportion.

KAHN: State highway trucks are being sent to Houston to fill up the gas tanks of stranded motorists who've run out of fuel after idling for so many hours. Houston Mayor Bill White warned any residents who've chosen to stay behind to use common sense and not to wait for more warnings.

Mayor BILL WHITE (Houston): So far, every morning, every evening, on the course of the storm, the force of the storm and the place whereof expected landfall, every hour that's gone by is not good news. And if anything, things have gotten worse consistently.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Woman: ...freeway, you can bail at the Grand Parkway. Hang a left. You need to be traveling...

KAHN: Glued to the traffic reports are a couple dozen people out back of the New Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in southeastern Houston. They're loading onto two buses and into several cars headed for a church in Austin. But for most of these people, it's the second hurricane evacuation. This tiny church has been housing and feeding dozens of Hurricane Katrina survivors for the past three weeks. Willa Mae Taylor(ph) coordinated all the food and clothing donated to the church for the evacuees. She said she never imagined she'd be the one needing help now.

Ms. WILLA MAE TAYLOR: Not ever in my life. All the food and all the clothing that we have for the other evacuees, we may have to come back and use that. So God always make a plan. We don't know what his plan is. So everything that we stored for them, we got to come back and use it, too.

KAHN: For Lionel Nicholson and his fiancee, leaving Houston is hard. They've been sleeping on cots in the church until this week when they finally moved into a new apartment. But Nicholson says he'll never forget living through Katrina.

Mr. LIONEL NICHOLSON (Hurricane Survivor): We stayed. We were trapped for about four days before being rescued.

KAHN: And when they say `evacuate' now, what do you say?

Mr. NICHOLSON: Put on your shoes and go. (Laughs)

Pastor RONALD SMITH (New Mt. Calvary Baptist Church): God, guide us safely through the dangers that we cannot see.

KAHN: Pastor Ronald Smith gathers everyone in a circle and leads a short prayer. Smith says he's done all he can do to protect his church. He boarded up the glass windows, and removed the building's lighted sign that had read `Welcome to the Katrina survivors.'

Pastor SMITH: Bless us again, we pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Group of People: (In unison) Amen.

Pastor SMITH: All right. Load 'em up! Let's head 'em out!

Unidentified Man: Whoa-ho!

KAHN: Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Houston.

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