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Ike worries the Gulf Coast

<div class="meta image-caption"><div class="origin-logo origin-image none"><span>none</span></div><span class="caption-text">Motorists line up to get gas in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike in Houston, Texas, Monday, Sept. 15, 2008. The shutdown of Gulf refineries sent wholesale gasoline prices spiking last week and pushed pump prices back above &#36;4 a gallon in Alabama, Georgia, Michigan and other states. &#40;AP Photo&#47;Marcio Jose Sanchez&#41;</span></div>
September 7, 2008 12:59:10 PM PDT
With powerful Hurricane Ike still hundreds of miles away and on an uncertain course, residents on these low-lying islands weighed evacuation orders Sunday, perhaps a hint that Gulf Coast residents as far away as Texas and New Orleans may be not heed similar calls to leave. Sunday's forecast had Ike crossing Cuba and headed into the Gulf of Mexico later this week. The Florida Keys were in an uncertain position, and Gulf Coast states even more so. In Texas and Louisiana, where people were just returning from the mass evacuation for a weaker-than-expected Gustav, officials already acknowledged that it may be difficult to get people mobilized again.

In Key West, many residents have their own formula for determining whether to leave. Even though evacuation orders became mandatory Sunday, traffic out of Key West was busy but not jammed.

Mike Tilson, 24, was in wait-and-see mode Sunday, stocking up his Key West houseboat with supplies.

"I got tarps and champagne," he said as he pushed a wheelbarrow of supplies including Heineken beer, ice and a loaf of bread down the dock.

He said if the storm tracks north of Cuba, he'd evacuate. Otherwise, he won't leave even if Key West is expecting a Category 3 (winds of 111-130 mph). "It's just a good party. I'll stay."

At 2 p.m. EDT Sunday, Ike was a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 135 mph, moving west at 13 mph. Hurricane force winds stretched 60 miles from the center. It was forecast to track over Cuba, re-emerging over the island's western coast Tuesday morning about 100 miles south of Key West as a Category 1.

Though forecasts suggested the storm was headed into the Gulf, historically, most major storms passing by Ike's position had curved northward. If it gets into the Gulf, it could head anywhere from Texas to the Florida Panhandle, and it likely would strengthen again.

President Bush declared a state of emergency for Florida because of Ike on Sunday and ordered federal money to supplement state and local response efforts.

More than 60 residents and nearly 90 people from a homeless shelter had arrived at a shelter at Florida International University in Miami by afternoon, but many others said they wanted to see what the storm does over Cuba and possibly reassess on Monday.

Key West Mayor Morgan McPherson had a warning for people not wanting to evacuate the area. He said anyone who thinks staying through a major hurricane is "champagne time is someone who hasn't thought it through clearly." He said emergency vehicles would be pulled off the road if the area gets tropical storm force winds.

McPherson said 15,000 tourists had already evacuated the region, and the Key West airport was set to close at 7 p.m. Sunday.

Passengers bound for Key West from the Miami International Airport were being asked to show identification proving they lived there and only residents were being allowed on Key Westbound flights.

Among those planning to stay in the United States' southernmost city were Claudia Pennington, 61, director of the Key West Art and Historical Society, who said she's staying to care for the group's three buildings and their contents. Don Guess, 50, was putting up plywood on a friend's house Sunday and said he was sticking around because the storm didn't worry him.

At the Key West Convalescent Center, 70 sick and elderly residents were being evacuated by bus and ambulance to Sunrise on Sunday afternoon.

Edward Koen, 87, sat in his wheelchair outside the center Sunday in the shade, staring up at the blue, sunny skies, waiting for the bus.

"Why should I be nervous, because of a hurricane?" Koen said. He'd rather stay put. "My gosh. I've been living here all my life."

The reluctance to leave didn't surprise Hugh Gladwin, the director of the Institute for Public Opinion Research at Florida International University, who has studied evacuations in Florida and after Hurricane Katrina.

"Yes, there's always a certain number of people who won't evacuate no matter what: they're fatalistic - they like being in hurricanes," Gladwin said.

Compared to other areas, the Keys actually have pretty good participation in evacuations, Gladwin said. That's partially because some residents treat evacuations like snow days in the Northeast: they plan for a certain number every year.

Still, Gladwin said he's never seen more than 80 percent evacuation participation anywhere, even with the biggest and scariest hurricane bearing down. And it can be harder to get people to leave when they've evacuated recently.

In southeast Texas, where many evacuated before Gustav, officials say they are unsure if residents will do the same if Ike comes their way.

"These evacuations are so hard, especially on the elderly. There are quite a few people that say they are not leaving again," said Crystal Holmes, spokeswoman for Southeast Texas Emergency Management. "We ... always worry that we will get something like Hurricane Rita (which hit southeast Texas in 2005), which was devastating for our area."

The inconsistent approach to evacuating areas in the United States stands in contrast to Cuba, where residents typically comply with hurricane evacuations issued by its authoritarian government.

When forecasts projected Ike's eye would strike Cuba's northern coast Sunday night and possibly hit Havana, Cuba evacuated mountainous and coastal regions of Holguin province. Workers rushed to protect coffee plants and other crops while others organized food and cooking-oil distribution efforts.

Some New Orleans residents were already vowing not to evacuate again. David Myers, 39, was one of many residents taking a break from cleaning up the mess left after Hurricane Gustav to cheer on the Saints in their season-opener.

Myers, a physician who rode out Gustav with relatives in Baton Rouge before returning home to New Orleans on Tuesday, said it would take a Category 4 or 5 storm to chase him away again. He expects many other residents who ran from Gustav to balk at evacuating for Ike.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said so-called "hurricane fatigue" should not prevent people there from leaving their homes for the second time in 10 days.

"We are likely going to have to become accustomed to evacuating more frequently than when we were younger," he said.

Christopher Gargiule, 37, said evacuating for Gustav cost him and his wife, Joanne, more than $1,500, and that they can't afford to leave again even if Ike forces another mandatory evacuation of the city. That's even though their home is 50 yards from a levee that had water splash over it during Gustav.

"We're going to have to hunker down and cross our fingers," Gargiule said.

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Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Jessica Gresko and Deborah Hastings in Miami, Sarah Larimer in Key Largo, Juan A. Lozano in Houston, Michael Kunzelman in New Orleans and Doug Simpson in Baton Rouge, La.


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