Monday, September 8, 2008

No more fleeing, say many in Hurricane Ike's path

After devastating crops and worsening floods that have already killed more than 300 people in Haiti, Hurricane Ike struck Cuba on its uncertain course toward the Gulf of Mexico. And once again, New Orleans — still recovering from the weaker-than-expected Gustav — is a possible target.

In the Florida Keys, where the storm may pass on Tuesday, many residents took a wait-and-see approach to evacuating Sunday, perhaps a harbinger of attitudes to come from Gulf Coast residents returning from an arduous evacuation and already showing signs of "hurricane fatigue."

Ike is expected to strengthen to perhaps Category 3 on its way to a landfall late in the week somewhere between the Florida Panhandle and the Texas coast — an area that includes New Orleans.

In Key West on Sunday, tourists and the approximately 25,000 residents were ordered to evacuate, but traffic on the lone highway from the island was steady rather than jammed.

Mike Tilson, 24, was preparing to ride Ike out in his houseboat, planning to evacuate only if the storm takes a sudden turn to the north.

"I got tarps and Champagne," he said as he pushed a wheelbarrow of supplies including Heineken beer, ice and a loaf of bread down the dock.

The reluctance to leave didn't surprise Hugh Gladwin, the director of the Institute for Public Opinion Research at Florida International University, who has studied evacuations in Florida and after Hurricane Katrina.

Gladwin said he's never seen more than 80 percent evacuation participation anywhere, even with the biggest and scariest hurricane bearing down. And it can be harder to get people to leave when they've evacuated recently.

That's the case in New Orleans, where many of the 2 million people who fled the Louisiana coast last week ahead of Gustav have only just returned from arduous evacuation. In many cases, jammed highways turned routine trips to such evacuee havens as Birmingham and Memphis into 15-hour crawls.

Some New Orleans residents were already digging in their heels ahead of Ike.

David Myers, a 39-year-old physician who rode out Gustav with relatives in Baton Rouge before returning home to New Orleans on Tuesday, said it would take a Category 4 or 5 storm to chase him away again. He expects many other residents who ran from Gustav to balk at evacuating for Ike.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said so-called "hurricane fatigue" should not prevent people there from leaving their homes for the second time in 10 days.

"We are likely going to have to become accustomed to evacuating more frequently than when we were younger," he said.

Christopher Gargiule, 37, said evacuating for Gustav cost him and his wife, Joanne, more than $1,500, and that they can't afford to leave again even if Ike forces another mandatory evacuation of the city. And they live in a house just 50 yards from a levee that had water splash over it during Gustav.

"We're going to have to hunker down and cross our fingers," Gargiule said.

Haitians took to their roofs to escape rising floodwaters for the second time in a week on Sunday as squalls from Hurricane Ike killed 58 people and collapsed a bridge that cut the last land route into the starving city of Gonaives.

Many more Haitian lives were threatened as Ike's downpours added to flooding from the recent Hurricanes Hanna, Gustav and Fay. Heavy rains also pelted the Dominican Republic, Haiti's neighbor on the island of Hispaniola, where about 4,000 people were evacuated from northern coastal towns.

Late Sunday, Ike was a Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds near 125 mph that slammed into Cuba's Holguin province. The storm was expected to weaken after passing over Cuba, but could then strengthen again.

Strong gusts and steady rains fell at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay in southeast Cuba, where all ferries were secured and beaches were off-limits. The military said cells containing the detainees — about 255 men suspected of links to the Taliban and al-Qaida — are hurricane-proof. But the base was spared the strongest winds.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center predicted Ike's eye would make landfall early today and could hit Havana, the capital of 2 million people with many vulnerable old buildings, by Monday night.

The first islands to bear Ike's fury Sunday were the Turks and Caicos, which have little natural protection from storm surges of up to 18 feet.

The British territory's Premier Michael Misick said more than 80 percent of the homes were damaged on two islands.

Ike's center later hit the Bahamas' Great Inagua island, which has about 1,000 people and about 50,000 West Indian flamingos — the world's largest breeding colony. Biologists worried that their unique habitat could be destroyed.

"You might have a significant drop in the number of flamingos," said Greg Butcher, bird-conservation director for the National Audubon Society.