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Gulf Coast Residents Forced to Evacuate Ahead of Dennis

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

1.8 million people were ordered to evacuate the Gulf Coast as Hurricane Dennis approached. NPR's Chris Arnold is in Mobile, Alabama, and spoke with some of those who had to leave their homes.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

CHRIS ARNOLD reporting:

As the winds and rain picked up today, residents from the Mobile area packed into an emergency special needs shelter at a local high school. Inflatable mattresses are set up in the hallway. Kids are running around. A number of elderly people have brought their oxygen tanks and medication, the things they absolutely need to make it through the storm. But Judy Ketchat(ph) says she now feels that she didn't bring enough.

Ms. JUDY KETCHAT: Not as much as I should because I really didn't think it was going to get this bad. But there's a lot of things that I left that I should have brought.

(Soundbite of crowd noise; engine)

ARNOLD: Earlier, across the country at the water's edge, Ted Lawson(ph) and other residents were pulling their fishing boats out of the water on the Dog River, where it empties into Mobile Bay. The first thunderheads of the storm were bearing down on them.

Mr. TED LAWSON: It feels like the leading edge is getting here.

ARNOLD: In a waterfront house just a few yards away, Chrissie Dyson(ph) is inside packing up much smaller things: her photographs.

Ms. CHRISSIE DYSON: And then I have to take all these pictures off the wall, you know, if we get flooded out.

ARNOLD: When Ivan came through here last year, Dyson says the storm surge pushed water up to her back steps. In other hurricanes in years past, she's had trees crash through her roof. But Dyson says she's much more concerned about her pictures here than she is about whether the house itself gets damaged. There's a collage her son made for her, the church she got married at. She smiles when she looks at a big print of her two kids when they were toddlers.

Ms. DYSON: We were at the Birmingham Zoo, and Ron was three and Adam was one and a half. And that was the most perfect picture. They were kissing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DYSON: And I never got that again. I even won in a photo contest with that picture.

ARNOLD: Oh, really? That's great...

Ms. DYSON: Yeah.

ARNOLD: ...the brothers giving each other a big old kiss.

Ms. DYSON: Yeah.

ARNOLD: That's really nice.

Dyson says she knows how important these pictures are because when she was young, she had a fire in her family's house, and she lost all the photographs of her own childhood.

Ms. DYSON: Oh, it's always bothered me, you know. You just--you know, you think you're going to remember everything. When you're kids, you think you'll remember it, but then it's gone. And I had a daughter that all I--that died when she was a baby, and all I have is her pictures. So, you know, you just don't want to lose them. It's like losing parts of your life.

ARNOLD: Dyson and her kids are riding out the storm up the road in Mobile at her husband's plumbing business, which they've set up with mattresses and a generator.

(Soundbite of engine)

ARNOLD: Further south on Dauphin Island, right on the Gulf Coast, Susan McClean(ph) was boarding up her house with fellow islander Jimmy Gammon(ph).

Ms. SUSAN McCLEAN: That's it. I'm doing--I'm just boarding up my front two windows. And we've moved everything from downstairs upstairs, so it's like a maze inside the house.

ARNOLD: McClean, who's a dental hygienist, says this island got hit hard by Ivan last year.

Ms. McCLEAN: Actually, I was one of the lucky ones. We had just put a new roof on, a new tin roof, and it just--it lifted in this corner and blew my bathroom out, so we're still repairing the bathroom. And in two years I'm on my third washer and dryer. So...

ARNOLD: Just from getting flooded out in the basement, yeah.

Ms. McCLEAN: Just from--yeah, just from water. Yeah. It's--here we go again. You just replace everything. You do the best you can patching up till the next one comes along.

Mr. JIMMY GAMMON: But she was lucky to have something left.

Ms. McCLEAN: Yeah.

Mr. GAMMON: You know, after Ivan, there's houses down here there weren't nothing but pilings left.

Ms. McCLEAN: Yes. Yeah, we lost 40, 44 houses on this island.

Mr. GAMMON: Forty-four, 45, something like that.

Ms. McCLEAN: Forty-four, 48, yeah, something like that on this end.

ARNOLD: But McClean and Gammon say 350 days out of the year, this island is a very nice place to live. And they say the neighbors pull together and help each other rebuild.

Mr. GAMMON: People say why do we live down here, but why do people live where there's tornadoes, and why do people live where there's mudslides? You know, it's just no different--or earthquakes.

Ms. McCLEAN: Yeah.

Mr. GAMMON: You got tragedies happen everywhere. But the good part about a hurricane, you know it's coming. You can get away from it. So...

Ms. McCLEAN: And it's a stress to get away from, and, I mean, we're very tired of doing this.

ARNOLD: As stressful as it is leaving, many people say it can be harder right now, sitting miles away not knowing what's happening at home. Chris Arnold, NPR News, Mobile County, Alabama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chris Arnold
NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.