Gannett News Service
LAKE CHARLES, La. -- As Hurricane Rita roared toward the Texas and Louisiana coasts, this city of 75,000 resembled an Old West ghost town.
A stray truck or a law-enforcement cruiser were the only vehicles prowling the streets at daybreak. A few cars headed for Interstate 10 and headed east. A seemingly pleasant summer breeze, warm, sweet and moist, hummed through the barren streets of a flood-prone city. Flags whipped west.
Calcasieu and Cameron parishes, marking the southwest corner of the state, were under mandatory evacuation orders. And most all residents complied. A Cameron Sheriff’s Department official told a local radio station that 99 percent of the parish (population roughly 9,500) had left and the last 1 percent was on the way.
By about 8 a.m., officials said about a foot of water covered the streets in the town of Cameron along the coast.
Phone calls to the Calcasieu Parish Emergency Preparedness Center went unanswered.
Interstate 10 east toward Lafayette featured little traffic. But it showed the remnants of Thursday’s massive jam of evacuees. A six-mile stretch from the outskirts of Lake Charles to the town of Iowa was littered with cars that ran out of gas and were pulled off into the grass.
Just 12 hours earlier, the highway was so choked that the 35-mile trip from Lake Charles to Jennings took some evacuees more than four hours. (Jennings rests just east of the mandatory evacuation line.)
Officials projected the hurricane to land near Port Arthur, about an hour west, putting Southwest Louisiana on the extremely dangerous east side of the storm.
The final evacuation bus was set to leave here at 7 a.m.
The night before, about 1,500 city residents, mostly too poor to have their own transport or enough gasoline in it to flee, came to the Lake Charles Civic Center to catch one of the dozens of buses headed north.
They had got the word either via radio, TV or newspaper Internet sites and sped over. Some pedaled bikes. Some ran out of their houses to flag down passing school buses trolling for would-be evacuees.
Most people saw the destruction of New Orleans and South Mississippi three weeks ago by Hurricane Katrina and decided not to stay in the path of an equally powerful storm.
“It made us look at reality -- look at what could happened," said Lake Charles Transit Planner Joseph DeClouette.
The buses headed north -- to anywhere it could find a place to deposit people.
“Where’s this bus goin’?" asked Latasha Weston, stepping on with her mother and sister.
“It’s either going to DeRidder, Alexandria or Shreveport," DeClouette replied.
Straddling his bicycle, Robert Johnson said he didn’t want to board.
“I need to know where they going, for how many days," Johnson said. “You got to have conversations with people."
“I might ride it out here," said John Hoosier, standing nearby. “I got $50 and a tank of gas, but I can’t go far on that."
“I think there’s too many people; I’m not use to that," Johnson said, shaking his head.
Told it might unsafe to say, Johnson, pointing to the bus, replied: “It’ll be unsafe with them too … Man, all them people. Where they going?"
He got back on his bike and rode off.
Friday, September 23
Posted by American Press at 9:22 AM