Texas Towns Brace for Possible Direct Hit

Port Arthur and Beaumont, Texas, lie directly in the projected path of Hurricane Rita. Local officials and residents who have not evacuated — more than 30,000 — talk about their concerns.

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Port Arthur and Beaumont, Texas, are in Jefferson County near the Louisiana line. Some 85 percent of people have evacuated. That still leaves more than 37,000 people preparing for the worst. NPR's Adam Davidson was in Port Arthur and Beaumont today.

ADAM DAVIDSON reporting:

Burt Lee says he's scared. He runs the pumping system for Port Arthur. He has 60 men waiting to pump away tomorrow's likely floods. Lee prepared a pumping building to house them during the storm.

Mr. BURT LEE: But my guys threw a shoe on me last night. They said they didn't like that building and they don't like my decision. Up until now, I hadn't had no problem with them. Their families are all gone, we got the levees shut down, we got all the gates closed. But now I got to find a place to shelter them men.

DAVIDSON: In Port Arthur, every emergency crew has made plans to abandon the city, both for their own safety and so they can come back quickly after the storm: all police, all firemen, all ambulance drivers. So before the storm, they tried to evacuate as many people as possible. Since yesterday afternoon, military flights have been making continuous runs to the local airport to get as many elderly and sick people out as possible. Sergeant Rodney Christa is with the Air National Guard Evacuation Squadron.

Sergeant RODNEY CHRISTA (Air National Guard): No more. So we're done.

Unidentified Man: OK.

Sgt. CHRISTA: So whatever we've got here is--that's it.

We've now made the decision that we're not going to be able to bring any more patients here to transport out. We're not going to have enough time to have them out. So we're only going to be able to take what we have here, and then that's going to be it.

DAVIDSON: They decided to close the airport to any future evacuees at 6:30 this morning, and that makes John Mayo upset. He runs a 15-man team of ambulance drivers. They've been working 48 hours straight with no sleep, ferrying the old and sick to safer spots. They want to stay a bit longer, but his boss told them to leave. So he says he has no choice.

Mr. JOHN MAYO (Ambulance Driver): We're told to redeploy to Lake Charles. We have to leave a lot of people. This is ground zero. It's going to be crazy.

DAVIDSON: Mayo says it broke his heart to tell the fire chief his men were leaving.

Mr. MAYO: We'll be back. We'll be back. It'll be for a different reason. It'll be to recover those bodies that we left.

DAVIDSON: Carl Griffith is in charge of emergency operations in Jefferson County. He says local officials did everything right to make sure everyone could be evacuated. Five years ago, they signed a contract with a company that promised to send 200 buses and 700 ambulances if a disaster struck. But, Griffith says, the state of Texas commandeered those vehicles for Houston's evacuation. So, he fears, people will die tonight in Port Arthur.

Mr. CARL GRIFFITH: The battleship is hard to turn and it's very slow, and in my frustration yesterday evening, probably about 3:00, I kind of twisted off on about 20 people in a conference call around the country.

DAVIDSON: Some people wouldn't have evacuated no matter how many buses there were. Ben Nevins(ph) is one of them. He lives on Magnolia Street in Beaumont, a town down the road from Port Arthur. He says he lives in a poor neighborhood filled with drugs and crime.

Mr. BEN NEVINS: Well, you know, sometime, man, when you on the bottom end of the totem pole, you may not have as much to live for. By the same token, you may not have as much to die for, either, you see?

DAVIDSON: You think you might die tonight?

Mr. NEVINS: That's the big, big question. I don't know, man.

DAVIDSON: By noon today, all emergency crews had left Port Arthur for safe shelter inland. They'll hunker down for the storm and wait. When it passes, they'll be back to look for survivors. Adam Davidson, NPR News, Beaumont, Texas.

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