HOUSTON — Officials opened emergency operations centers, moved inmates to prisons farther inland and passed out sandbags along portions of the Texas coast as Hurricane Dean barreled toward the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Dean was several days away and its path was still uncertain, but officials weren’t taking any chances. Even if the hurricane continues a steady westward course toward Mexico, parts of the already saturated state could be flooded by the storm’s outer bands.
One woman died in flooding in Taylor County in West Texas on Saturday and about 1,000 people evacuated heir homes in Abilene on Sunday as Elm Creek spilled from its banks following heavy rains from the remnants of Tropical Storm Erin.
Officials across Texas were concerned that any additional rainfall from Hurricane Dean could have similar effects.
Officials in Cameron County, at the state’s southernmost tip, opened emergency operations centers and urged residents to evacuate voluntarily.
“Our mission is very simple. It’s to get people out of the kill zone, to get people out of the danger area, which is the coastline of Texas,” said Johnny Cavazos, the county’s chief emergency director. He added that the county was prepared to order mandatory evacuations if the hurricane veers toward Texas.
The state sent uniformed personnel and aircraft, and hundreds of buses were readied for possible evacuations. City officials distributed sandbags after a state of emergency was declared in the resort town of South Padre Island. The United League canceled the final three regular season minor league baseball games.
“With four of our teams playing in the Rio Grande Valley and the impending threat of Hurricane Dean hitting landfall in the Valley, public safety necessitates this action,” League President Craig Brasfield said.
The Texas Youth Commission relocated 269 inmates and staff members from its Evins facility in Edinburg. State prison officials also began evacuating inmates from three Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities in South Texas.
About 3,300 inmates at The Willacy County State Jail in Raymondville as well as in the Lopez State Jail and Segovia Unit, both in Edinburg, were transported by bus to other correctional units.
Michelle Lyons, a department spokesman, said Sunday night the move had “gone very smoothly.”
“Those offenders will remain in place until the storm is no longer a threat,” she said.
As of 8 a.m. today, Dean was about 115 miles southeast of Grand Cayman and was traveling west at about 20 mph, the National Hurricane Center said.
The hurricane had 150 mph sustained winds, and experts said it could intensify to a Category 5 storm with sustained winds of 160 mph or greater before slamming into Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula late today. A hurricane warning was in effect for the coast of Belize, the Cayman Islands and the Yucatan Peninsula as far north as Cancun.
The threat from Dean and its torrential rainfall came as parts of Texas were still cleaning up from the flooding caused by the remnants of Tropical Storm Erin.
Taylor County Judge George Newman said as much as 7 to 10 inches of rain fell Thursday night and Friday. About 35 to 50 homes and businesses were flooded in the town of Merkel on Saturday as Mulberry Creek jumped its banks.
In Abilene on Sunday, Elm Creek topped its bank in several locations and caused street flooding. Mayor Norm Archibald said 10 homes flooded.
Newman said searchers on horseback found the body of 34-year-old Rita Johns on Saturday afternoon, hours after her vehicle was found washed off the road in an area called Coronado’s Camp.
Newman said he had asked Gov. Rick Perry for a disaster declaration, the second in as many as three weeks because of flooding.
Ronnie Broadus, emergency services coordinator for the American Red Cross, said rains that began Thursday caused extensive flooding in Hamlin, about 40 miles northwest of Abilene.
“They got hit really hard,” he said. “They’ve got homes over there that got two to four feet of water.”
Dean was expected to intensify to a Category 5 classification with sustained winds of 160 mph before hitting Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula on Tuesday.
Dean had already killed eight people on its destructive march across the Caribbean. Jamaica was spared a direct hit Sunday night.
A Home Depot in Brownsville ran out of its supply of plywood Sunday as people rushed to board up windows and about 60 people waited in line for a new shipment to arrive. Other customers crowded the store scooping up batteries, generators, water and flashlights, assistant store manager Edward Gonzalez said.
“We’re hoping it misses us, but it is a huge, huge storm,” said Gonzalez. “Everyone says they’re not going to take chances. They’re going to board up windows and be ready to ride it out.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry mobilized the National Guard and search and rescue teams, shipped 60,000 to 80,000 barrels of gasoline to gas stations in the Rio Grande Valley, and got a pre-emptive federal disaster declaration from President Bush.
The state sent six C-130 aircraft to Cameron County to help if any critically ill patients need to be evacuated from local hospitals. Buses from the city, state, and military were on standby for possible evacuations, including a fleet of 700 sent by the governor's office. Another 600 buses were on standby in San Antonio.
The American Red Cross said it was using Little Rock, Ark., as an assembly point for emergency workers in case they’re needed to help cope with the aftermath of Dean’s landfall.
The organization said in a news release Sunday that 100 emergency vehicles from 23 states — and two Red Cross workers accompanying each vehicle — were expected to arrive at Little Rock by late Monday.
Associated Press writers Thomas Peipert and Linda Franklin in Dallas contributed to this report.