SURFSIDE BEACH, Texas – Authorities say tens of thousands ignored evacuation orders and stayed behind as Hurricane Ike took aim at the Texas coast.
An Associated Press survey showed that in three counties alone, some 90,000 people chose not to leave despite dire warnings from forecasters.
The emergency management coordinator for Galveston County estimates that 80 percent of the residents evacuated. That leaves more than 11,000 residents in the county that was expected to take a direct hit from Ike's massive storm surge.
Farther up the coast, officials say half the residents of Beaumont stayed put less than two weeks after many evacuated for Hurricane Gustav, only to see the storm miss the city entirely.
At first, even the threat of "certain death" was not enough to persuade Bobby Taylor to flee this small town directly in the path of Hurricane Ike.
His wife, Elizabeth, had already decided to leave before police drove a dump truck through flooded streets, urging people to get out. Those who refused were told to write their names on their arms in black marker, so their bodies could be identified later.
Elizabeth came back to persuade her husband to leave and was waiting for him when he waded in waist-deep water up the main street, towing a blue kayak. She greeted him joyously. "Now I'll pray for our neighbors," she said.
More than a million people evacuated southeast Texas ahead of Ike. But citing faith and fate, tens of thousands more ignored calls to clear out, coastal authorities said. The National Weather Service warned that people in smaller structures in some areas "may face certain death."
The choice to stay — always questionable, sometimes fatal — was an especially curious one to make so close to Galveston, site of a 1900 storm that killed at least 6,000 people, more than any other natural disaster in U.S. history.
Mayor Larry Davison Davison said authorities had been told the man had left, but later saw him on his porch. He had no phone.
"When we finally saw him, it was too late to get back in there," the mayor said. "We had to retreat."
A mandatory evacuation order was in place, but there were no signs anyone was being forcibly removed.
"We're not going to drag them out of there and handcuff them," Davison said. "They've made their decision."
Forecasters warned of a 20-foot storm surge by early Saturday. By midday Friday there was 5 feet of water in some places, with more coming in.
It was enough to persuade the Taylors' neighbors to relent. David Fields, 45, and wife Dondi, 50, had written their Social Security numbers on their arms. Dondi Fields added "I (heart) U" on her right arm — for her kids, she said.
"We didn't want anybody to have to risk their life to come and get us," Dondi Fields said.
Nearby Freeport was all but deserted, and quiet except for the increasingly roiling sea. Truck driver Darryl Jones Sr. and his neighbor, Keith Glover, talked about the impending hurricane without concern. Nearly everyone around them had obeyed a mandatory evacuation order.
"I'm just enjoying the serenity, really," said Jones, 48, sitting in his electric golf cart. "You never know what the aftermath might hold, but right now it's very peaceful."
Glover, who works for the nearby city of Clute, will work removing debris after the storm, but said he would have stayed anyway.
"Worrying's a sin," he said.
At By George Automotive repair shop, owner George Elizondo and others in Freeport gathered to grill chicken leg quarters, shoulder steak and tortillas with pico de gallo. Coolers from the nearby grocery store sat filled with soda and beer.
The hurricane block party tradition began with Hurricane Rita in 2005, when Elizondo and others stayed behind to offer mechanical help to anyone those heading out.
"If it really gets bad, we'll get in our trucks and we'll drive out," Elizondo said. "Where's the burden in that? We're driving, we're ahead of the storm and there's no one on the road. There's no danger for us."
Water already covered one low-lying road in Freeport near refineries and a listing shrimp boat. The road became an attraction for those who stayed. Truck after truck pulled up, drivers jumping out with video cameras in hand. One woman leaned comically into the wind, smiling for the camera.
"It's going to be fun," Jerry Norton said as he snapped a cell phone image of the flooded road. He said he was sending the picture to his children and grandchildren who fled inland to Austin.
Norton said he had filled his bathtubs with water — for drinking, but also for flushing toilets in case the sewer system breaks down. He bought groceries and secured doors and windows.
"If my stuff is going to get washed away, I'm going to watch it get washed away," Norton said.
Some who stayed behind in Galveston relied on faith. Retiree William Steally, 75, said he was planning to ride it out, but his wife and sister-in-law left Thursday.
"She got scared and they left. I told them I believe in the man up there, God," Steally said as he pointed to the sky. "I believe he will take care of me."
Others quieted their own concerns and rolled with it.
Clarence Romas, a 55-year-old handyman, said he would ride out the storm in his downstairs apartment with friends.
As for the "certain death" warning? "It puts a little fear in my heart," he admitted, "but what's gonna happen is gonna happen."