MCALLEN, TEXAS — Hurricane Ike strengthened in the Gulf's warm waters Wednesday and churned toward the Texas coast, and officials started to evacuate the first of millions of residents who could be in the storm's path. Ike bloomed to a Category 2 storm and was likely to grow even stronger before its predicted strike on the Texas coast early Saturday.
Officials in Matagorda County, about halfway between Houston and Corpus Christi, began a mandatory evacuation for residents in its coastal portions. County Judge Nate McDonald said his region expected to be the epicenter of the storm.
If more 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.
Texas emergency officials were taking no chances with the lives of its medically fragile citizens. Residents with special needs in the Corpus Christi area were set to start leaving by bus for San Antonio, and the state opened a northbound shoulder lane on Interstate 37 to accommodate the heavier traffic created by people who wished to leave.
"For people designated as special medical needs who have a health condition that will require them to be out of harm's way ... we will assist them in boarding state-furnished transportation and we'll assist them in getting to San Antonio," said Nueces County Judge Loyd Neal.
The 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."
Gov. Rick Perry has already declared 88 coastal counties disaster areas to start the flow of state aid, activated 7,500 National Guard troops and began preparing for an evacuation, lining up "buses rather than body bags." Schools in the Corpus Christi area called off classes for Thursday and Friday, as well as weekend sports events.
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."
Ike has already killed at least 80 people in the Caribbean and ravaged homes in Cuba. As it left Cuba Tuesday, the storm delivered a punishing blow to towns such as Los Palacios, which already suffered a direct hit from Category 4 Hurricane Gustav on Aug. 30.
At 2 p.m. EDT, the storm was about 255 miles west of Key West, Fla., and was moving toward the northwest at about 13 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. It had top sustained winds of around 100 mph. Category 2 storms have winds between 96 mph and 110 mph.
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.