HOUSTON – Even with powerful Hurricane Dean days away and its path uncertain, officials in sodden south Texas left little to chance Sunday, readying planes, gasoline and hundreds of buses to get residents out in a hurry.
Authorities passed out sandbags, evacuated inmates and opened emergency operations centers in a region still soaked from the remnants of Tropical Storm Erin, which caused severe flooding Sunday and at least nine deaths from Texas to Minnesota.
"We're preparing for Hurricane Dean just as if it is going to be direct hit," said Johnny Cavazos, the chief emergency director for Cameron County at the state's southernmost tip.
A state of emergency was declared in the resort town of South Padre Island. About 3,300 jail and prison inmates in the area were to be bused to correctional facilities elsewhere by Sunday night.
In Washington, R. David Paulison, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said up to 100,000 people might have to be evacuated from the state's southeastern coast and its immigrant shantytowns near the Mexican border. The storm is on course for northern Mexico, but could shift and hit the region around Brownsville, Texas, Paulison said.
Flooding from what was left of Erin forced about 1,000 people to evacuate homes in Abilene on Sunday and was blamed for at least nine deaths in Texas, Oklahoma and Minnesota.
The level of preparation for Dean was influenced by memories of two destructive hurricanes that hammered the Gulf Coast region in 2005.
During Rita, the evacuation quickly turned into a nightmare of clogged highways, stalled traffic and sweltering heat, as motorists from the coast ran into residents fleeing Houston. Gas stations ran out of fuel and supplies, and drivers sat for hours on gridlocked evacuation routes.
Dean was a Category Four storm late Sunday, threatening to pour as much as 20 inches of rain on Jamaica. The National Hurricane Center in Miami said it was projected to reach the most dangerous hurricane classification, Category 5, with wind of 160 mph before crashing into the Mexican coastline near Cancun on Monday night or Tuesday.
The storm was forecast to make landfall Wednesday, likely somewhere along the coast of northern Mexican or southern Texas, the hurricane center said.
Even if Mexico gets the brunt of the storm, Texas could still get soaked by Dean's outer bands of heavy rain, Cavazos said.
A Home Depot in Brownsville ran out of its supply of plywood Sunday as people rushed to board up windows, and about 60 people waited in line for a new shipment to arrive. Other customers crowded the store scooping up batteries, generators, water and flashlights, assistant store manager Edward Gonzalez said.
"We're hoping it misses us, but it is a huge, huge storm," said Gonzalez. "Everyone says they're not going to take chances. They're going to board up windows and be ready to ride it out."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry mobilized the National Guard and search and rescue teams, shipped 60,000 to 80,000 barrels of gasoline to gas stations in the Rio Grande Valley, and got a pre-emptive federal disaster declaration from President Bush.
The state sent six C-130 aircraft to Cameron County to help if any critically ill patients need to be evacuated from local hospital. Buses from the city, state, and military were on standby for possible evacuations, including a fleet of 700 sent by the governor's office. Another 600 buses were on standby in San Antonio.
"Being this prepared is expensive and, at times, it's inconvenient, but I'd rather be safe than sorry," Cavazos said.