Port Arthur Finds Itself in Rita's Direct Path

As Hurricane Rita veers east, residents of Port Arthur, Texas are preparing for its arrival. The Category Four storm is expected to make landfall along the Texas-Louisiana coastline Friday night or early Saturday morning.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're next going to move up the Texas coast to NPR's Adam Davidson. He was in the oil city of Port Arthur earlier this morning and has now moved up the road to slightly higher ground in Beaumont, Texas, which is the location of the temporary command center for that county.

Adam, good morning.

ADAM DAVIDSON reporting:

Good morning.

INSKEEP: Adam, on a normal day, this county--Jefferson County would have about 250,000 people. As far as you can tell, how many are still there?

DAVIDSON: Well, I see pretty much no one. The county officials say about 15 percent of people are left in their homes. That's about 37,000 people who are left here. The evacuation has been a nightmare for Jefferson County. They had a contract in place, since 2000, for any kind of emergency for 200 buses and 700 ambulances, but the city of Houston and the state of Texas commandeered all those buses and ambulances. After a lot of begging, they got 15 ambulances down here to evacuate the sick and the elderly. I met some guys who had been working 48 hours straight and they finally had to leave this morning.

INSKEEP: So the county did exactly what people were saying should have been done in New Orleans, for example, to go after the most vulnerable and had their vehicles taken away by the state. What does that mean for the people who are left behind?

DAVIDSON: They are using apocalyptic language. They are talking about severe destruction throughout the county, a lot of death. One ambulance driver said to me that he wants to stay, but he's ordered to leave, so he's going to come back in two days and pick up the bodies of the people he wasn't able to get to.

INSKEEP: Why did the state...

DAVIDSON: They...

INSKEEP: Forgive me, why did the state take away these buses and ambulances from this county?

DAVIDSON: Well, the people here are certainly not sympathetic to this and aren't giving any real reason. Their understanding is a couple of days ago, it looked like this storm was going to go a little bit west of here and so it might have been a rational choice a couple days ago, but now that this storm is coming right our way, it sure looks like a bad decision.

INSKEEP: So what's going on at the command center there for Jefferson County, Texas?

DAVIDSON: Well, what you're having is all of the cities around, Port Arthur and several of the other smaller cities are moving their police chiefs, their fire chiefs, their mayors all into one command center in Beaumont. They're not going to be doing much in the way of emergency work during the hurricane. They're really hunkering down. They'll try and gather information. They've set up all sorts of communications links with The Weather Center and the military, but basically they're here to wait out the storm. They've moved all fire trucks, all ambulances, all police cars as far inland as possible, so in the affected area, there will not be--they tell me--a single policeman, a single fireman, a single ambulance driver, nobody. They're here to hunker down, wait this storm out and deal with what comes afterwards tomorrow.

INSKEEP: What did you see, Adam, when you were more closely in that affected area in Port Arthur earlier today?

DAVIDSON: It was pretty much empty, I mean, I think in several hours of driving around I might have seen 10 cars that weren't emergency vehicles. There still were--there are still emergency flights going out, military flights taking sick and elderly people out of the airport, but that's all ending by right about now. They're trying to have the city completely cleared between 10 AM and noon local time, so pretty much in the next half-hour or so.

INSKEEP: Adam, is this the first time you've covered a hurricane?

DAVIDSON: It is. Yeah. Yeah. It's pretty scary, I have to say. They're talking--I'm sorry, go ahead.

INSKEEP: I was just going to say that's an interesting statement coming from someone who has also covered the war in Iraq.

DAVIDSON: Yeah, I've been thinking a lot about this because I lived in Baghdad for about a year after the official war ended. And what I was thinking is, as you know, Steve, there could be a lot of normalcy in Baghdad. It's a city of four and a half million people and it's awful but, you know, maybe a few hundred or a few dozen die in a day. Here they're talking about almost everyone might die in some of the affected areas. We're safe, we're in a protected place, but the people in their homes are not.

INSKEEP: OK. That's NPR's Adam Davidson. Adam, thanks very much.

DAVIDSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And Adam is at the Jefferson County Command Center in Beaumont, Texas.

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