Special-needs residents in the city of Houston and Harris County will begin evacuating Thursday morning as Hurricane Ike headed for the Texas coast, officials said.
A mandatory evacuation for residents in surrounding low-lying areas of Houston will begin Thursday afternoon, officials said.
“We strongly urge you to evacuate before tomorrow,” said Judge Ed Emmett, Harris County’s chief executive officer, at a news conference Thursday with Houston Mayor Bill White.
Government offices and schools will be closed Friday in Houston in anticipation of the hurricane. Officials are still deciding whether to put a contraflow system in place, or reverse highway lanes to make them one way to help with evacuations, Emmett said.
Seven other counties have begun partial or full evacuations.
Forecasters said the storm could slam into the Texas coast — south of Galveston — as a powerful Category 3 storm late Friday or early Saturday. iReport.com: Ike’s storm surges slam Pensacola, Florida
Because of the size of the storm, forecasters warned weather in areas along the Texas coast could be dangerous even before Ike hits. Watch how the hurricane has grown in size »
Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas issued a mandatory evacuation order for the entire Galveston Island. No shelters will be open, according to the city’s Web site.
At 11 a.m. ET Thursday, Ike — now a Category 2 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale of 1 to 5 in strength — was heading toward the northwestern Gulf of Mexico, the National Hurricane Center said.
Ike was moving west-northwest near 10 mph; that motion should continue over the central and western Gulf of Mexico on Thursday and Friday, the hurricane center said. Track the storm »
At 11 a.m., Ike had top sustained winds near 100 mph, and was about 580 miles east of Corpus Christi, Texas, and 470 miles east-southeast of Galveston.
Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 115 miles from the center, the hurricane center said, and tropical storm-force winds extended outward up to 275 miles. iReport.com: ‘I’ve never seen the water up that high’
Aransas County has ordered a mandatory evacuation of all nonessential government employees.
In Rockport, special-needs residents gathered at the Live Oak Elementary School for the evacuation.
“All my family is up north,” James Beaird, who has Type 2 diabetes, told CNN affiliate KIII-TV in Corpus Christi. “I’m glad they pick up an old cripple dude, like me, and get me somewhere.”
Farther up the Gulf Coast and closer to where the National Hurricane Center predicts a direct hit, Brazoria County ordered a mandatory evacuation to begin at 8 a.m. CT (9 a.m. ET) Thursday. Some other Texas localities have ordered mandatory evacuations, while others have left the decision to depart up to residents.
“One of the things that the public has to understand if they decide to stay, there will be a period of time during this storm when they will absolutely be on their own,” Brazoria County Sheriff Charles Wagner said.
“There will be no medical services; there will be no fire department; there will be no law enforcement, groceries, gasoline, drugs, electricity.”
Some Brazoria County residents said they didn’t want to leave but realized it was in their best interest to do so.
“You don’t have a choice when you have kids,” Deborah Davis of Freeport told CNN affiliate KPRC-TV in Houston.
Diana Rangel, who also lives in Freeport, filled up her car with gas Wednesday at a convenience store overrun with other vehicles waiting in line, CNN affiliate KHOU-TV in Houston reported.
“We don’t want to get stuck out here [in floodwaters],” Rangel told KHOU.
In Matagorda County, southwest of Galveston, officials ordered a mandatory evacuation for all areas except the cities of Bay City and Van Vleck. The evacuation must be completed by at 6 p.m. (7 p.m. ET) Thursday.
A hurricane warning has been issued for the northwestern Gulf Coast, from Morgan City, Louisiana, to Baffin Bay, Texas. Hurricane conditions could reach the coast within the warning area by late Friday. A hurricane watch is in effect from south of Baffin Bay to Port Mansfield, Texas.
Forecasters issued a tropical storm warning from south of Baffin Bay to Port Mansfield. A tropical storm warning also is in effect from east of Morgan City to the Mississippi-Alabama border, including New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry put 7,500 National Guard members on standby and issued a disaster declaration for 88 counties.
President Bush declared an emergency, making federal funds available for the state to prepare for the storm.
Corpus Christi officials also began the evacuation process for residents with special needs, supplying buses to transport them out of town.
Voluntary evacuations were issued in San Patricio and Victoria counties and parts of Jackson County, according to the governor’s office.
More than 1,300 inmates from the Texas Correctional Institutions Division’s Stevenson Unit in Cuero were being evacuated to facilities in Beeville and Kenedy, Perry’s office said, and 597 were transferred from the substance abuse Glossbrenner Unit in San Diego, in south Texas, to Dilley.
Naval air stations in Texas also began to prepare for Hurricane Ike’s expected arrival by moving aircrafts.
Evacuations appeared to have saved lives in Cuba when Ike slammed into the island. Four deaths were reported from the storm, according to the Cuban government. The Cuban Civil Defense brought buses or trucks to take people to shelters.
The United States, which provided $100,000 in emergency aid to communist-run Cuba through private aid agencies after Hurricane Gustav hit the island August 30, said that it was considering additional emergency aid for Cuba because of Ike.
The storm pounded Grand Turk Island in the Turks and Caicos chain, putting a strain on the British territory’s tourism industry.
Flooding and rains from Ike’s outer bands have been blamed for 70 deaths in Haiti.