Choosing to stay, despite ‘certain death' warning

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.

At By George Automotive repair shop in nearby Freeport, owner George Elizondo and others gathered to grill chicken, steak and tortillas with pico de gallo. Coolers from the nearby grocery store were 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 those heading out.

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.

“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 fails. 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.”

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.”