By ALICIA A. CALDWELL, Associated Press Writer 11 minutes ago
Traffic came to a standstill and gas shortages were reported Thursday
as hundreds of thousands of people in the Houston metropolitan area
rushed to get out of the path of Hurricane Rita, a monster storm with
165 mph winds. As residents of the area tried to make phone calls to
family and friends to tell them about their arrival, they also found
the phone system nearly useless on Wednesday and Thursday.
More than 1.3 million residents in Texas and Louisiana were under
orders to evacuate to avoid a deadly repeat of Katrina.
The Category 5 storm weakened slightly Thursday morning, and
forecasters said it could lose more steam by the time it comes ashore
late Friday or early Saturday. But it could still be an extremely
dangerous hurricane -- one aimed straight at a section of coastline
with the nation's biggest concentration of oil refineries.
"Don't follow the example of Katrina and wait. No one will come and
get you during the storm," Harris County Judge Robert Eckels said in
Houston. Busses are leaving now, get on board or take your own cars.
In New Orleans, meanwhile, Rita's outer bands brought the first rain
to the city since Rita, raising fears that the patched-up levees could
give way and cause a new round of flooding.
Highways leading inland out of Houston were clogged with
bumper-to-bumper traffic for up to 100 miles north of the city. Gas
stations were reported to be running out of gas. Shoppers emptied
grocery store shelves of spaghetti, tuna and other nonperishable
items. Hotels hundreds of miles inland filled up. Police officers
along the highways carried gasoline to help motorists who ran out.
To speed the evacuation out of the nation's fourth-largest city, Gov. Rick
Perry ordered a halt to all southbound traffic into Houston along Interstate
45 and took the unprecedented stop of directing the opening all eight lanes
to northbound traffic out of the city for 125 miles. I-45 is the primary
evacuation route north from Houston and Galveston.
Trazanna Moreno tried to leave Houston for the 225-mile trip to Dallas
on U.S. 90 but turned back after getting stuck in traffic.
"We ended up going six miles in two hours and 45 minutes," said
Moreno, whose neighborhood is not expected to flood. "It could be that
if we ended up stranded in the middle of nowhere that we'd be in a
worse position in a car dealing with hurricane-force winds than we
would in our house.
With traffic at a dead halt, fathers and sons got out of their cars
and played catch on freeway medians. Others stood next to their cars,
videotaping the scene, or walked between vehicles, chatting with
people along the way. Tow trucks tried to wend their way along the
shoulders, pulling stalled cars out of the way.
Hotels hours inland filled up, all the way to the Oklahoma and Arkansas
John Decker, 47, decided to board up his home and hunker down because
he could not find a hotel room.
"I've been calling since yesterday morning all the way up to about 1
this morning. No vacancies anywhere," he said. "I checked all the way
from here to Del Rio to Eagle Pass. I called as far as Lufkin, San
Marcos, San Angelo. The only place I didn't call was El Paso. By the
time you reach El Paso, it's almost time to turn back."
At 11 a.m. EDT, Rita was centered about 460 miles southeast of
Galveston and was moving at near 9 mph. It winds were 165 mph, down
slightly from 175 mph earlier in the day. Forecasters predicted it
would come ashore somewhere between the Houston-Galveston area and
western Louisiana. Baytown and Texas City were also braced for the
worst, as was Beaumont.
Hurricane-force winds extended 85 miles from the center of the storm,
and even a slight rightward turn could prove devastating to the
Katrina-fractured levees protecting New Orleans. Engineers rushed to
fix the city's pumps and fortify its levees.
Forecasters said Rita could be the strongest hurricane on record ever
to hit Texas. Only three Category 5 hurricanes, the highest on the
scale, are known to have hit the U.S. mainland -- most recently,
Andrew, which smashed South Florida in 1992. Katrina was technically
not as bad; it dropped to Category 4 when it actually landed. Experts
are divided in their opinions on whether Rita will also decrease in
ferocity a little when it reaches the shore.
The U.S. mainland has never been hit by both a Category 4 and a
Category 5 in the same season. Katrina came ashore Aug. 29 as a
Category 4 hurricane, and until last week, Rita was a Category 2
storm for awhile, as an illustration of how these storms can both
build up in intensity and slack off within a few days at sea.
Galveston, Corpus Christi and surrounding Nueces County, low-lying
parts of Houston, and mostly emptied-out New Orleans were under
mandatory evacuation orders as Rita swirled across the Gulf of Mexico,
drawing energy with terrifying efficiency from its warm waters.
"It's not worth staying here," said Celia Martinez as she and several
relatives finished packing up their homes and pets. "Life is more
important than things."
Along the Gulf Coast, federal, state and local officials heeded the
bitter lessons of Katrina: Hundreds of buses were dispatched to
evacuate the poor. Hospital and nursing home patients were cleared
out. And truckloads of water, ice and ready-made meals, and rescue and
medical teams were put on standby.
"Now is not a time for warnings. Now is a time for action," Houston
Mayor Bill White said.
He added: "There is no good place to put a shelter that could take a
direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane. I don't want anybody out there
watching this and thinking that somebody is bound to open a local
school for me on Friday, not with a hurricane packing these kinds of
winds; consider New Orleans. (Mayor) Ragin thought their arena should
hold up okay. Look how it got after two or three days. We are not even
going to try that approach. Just get out now! Buses are loading and
pulling out every few minutes."
Galveston was a virtual ghost town by late Wednesday. The coastal city
of 58,000 -- situated on an island 8 feet above sea level -- was
nearly wiped off the map in 1900 when an unnamed hurricane killed
between 6,000 and 12,000 in what is still the nation's deadliest
City Manager Steve LeBlanc said the storm surge from Rita could reach
50 feet. Galveston is protected by a nearly 11-mile-long granite
seawall 17 feet tall.
"Not a good picture for us," LeBlanc said.
In Houston, the state's largest city and home to the highest
concentration of Katrina refugees, geography makes evacuation
particularly tricky. While many hurricane-prone cities are right on
the coast, Houston is 60 miles inland, so a coastal suburban area of 2
million people must evacuate through a metropolitan area of 4 million
people where the freeways are often clogged under the best of
Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said buses used to take people and their
pets off the island were running in short supply Wednesday and warned that
stragglers could be left to fend for themselves. She warned, "Don't
miss the last bus; better get started now. No telling if we will have
any phone service next week if you then decide you want help."
Meanwhile, the death toll from Katrina passed the 1,000 mark Wednesday
in five Gulf Coast states. The body count in Louisiana alone was put
at nearly 800, with most of the corpses found in the receding
floodwaters of New Orleans.
Crude oil prices rose again on fears that Rita would destroy key oil
installations in Texas and the gulf. Hundreds of workers were
evacuated from offshore oil rigs. Texas, the heart of U.S. crude
production, accounts for 25 percent of the nation's total oil output.
Rita is the 17th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, making
this the fourth-busiest season since record-keeping started in
1851. The record is 21 tropical storms in 1933. The hurricane season
is not over until Nov. 30.
Associated Press writers Deborah Hastings and Juan A. Lozano in Houston,
Lynn Brezosky in Corpus Christi and Pam Easton in Galveston contributed to
On the Net:
National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.
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