- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 22, 2005

GALVESTON, Texas — Hurricane Rita turned into a Category 5, 165-mph monster yesterday and swirled toward the Gulf Coast, forcing officials to order the evacuations of as many as 1.3 million people in Texas and Louisiana.

Forecasters predicted Rita would come ashore Saturday along the central Texas coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi. But even a slight rightward turn could inflict more misery on New Orleans.

“After this killer in New Orleans, Katrina, I just cannot fathom staying,” 59-year-old Ldyyan Jean Jocque said as she waited for an evacuation bus outside the Galveston Community Center. She had packed her Bible, some music and clothes and loaded her dog into a pet carrier.

Rita’s rise occurred as the death toll from Hurricane Katrina — a Category 4, 145-mph storm — climbed past 1,000 yesterday to 1,036 in five states. The body count in Louisiana increased to 799, most found in the receding floodwaters of New Orleans.

Gaining strength with frightening speed, Rita transformed from a 115-mph Category 1 hurricane that sideswiped the Florida Keys on Tuesday to a 165-mph Category 5 — the highest on the scale — in 14 hours. Only three Category 5 hurricanes are known to have hit the U.S. mainland — most recently, Andrew, which smashed South Florida in 1992.

All of Galveston, low-lying sections of Houston and Corpus Christi, and a mostly emptied-out New Orleans were under mandatory evacuation orders.

“It’s scary. It’s really scary,” Shalonda Dunn said as she and her 5- and 9-year-old daughters waited to board a bus arranged by emergency authorities in Galveston. “I’m glad we’ve got the opportunity to leave. … You never know what can happen.”

In Houston, the state’s largest city and home to the highest concentration of Katrina refugees, the area’s 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 circumstances.

In New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers raced to fortify the city’s patched-up levees for fear the additional rain could swamp the walls and flood the city all over again. The Corps said New Orleans’ levees can only handle up to 6 inches of rain and a storm surge of 10 to 12 feet.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin estimated only 400 to 500 people remained in the vulnerable east bank areas of the city. They, too, were ordered to evacuate. But only a few people lined up for the evacuation buses provided. Most of the people still in the city were thought to have their own cars.

“I don’t think I can stay for another storm,” said Keith Price, a nurse at New Orleans’ University Hospital who stayed through Katrina and had to wade to safety through chest-deep water. “Until you are actually in that water, you really don’t know how frightening it is.”

Government officials eager to show they had learned their lessons from the sluggish response to Katrina three weeks ago sent in hundreds of buses to evacuate the poor, moved out hospital and nursing home patients, dispatched truckloads of water, ice and ready-made meals, and put rescue and medical teams on standby. An Army general in Texas was told to be ready to assume control of a military task force in Rita’s wake.

“We hope and pray that Hurricane Rita will not be a devastating storm, but we’ve got to be ready for the worst,” President Bush said in Washington.

By yesterday evening, Rita was centered about 580 miles east-southeast of Galveston and was moving west near 13 mph. With its breathtaking size — tropical storm-force winds extending 350 miles across — practically the entire western end of the Gulf Coast was in peril.

Special attention was given to hospitals and nursing homes, three weeks after scores of sick and elderly patients in the New Orleans area drowned in Katrina’s floodwaters or died in the stifling heat while waiting to be rescued.

Helicopters, ambulances and buses were used to evacuate 200 patients from Galveston’s only hospital. And at the Edgewater Retirement Community, a six-story building near the city’s seawall, 200 elderly residents were not given a choice.

“They either go with a family member or they go with us, but this building is not safe sitting on the seawall with a major hurricane coming,” said David Hastings, executive director. “I have had several say, ‘I don’t want to go,’ and I said, ‘I’m sorry, you’re going.’”

Galveston, a city of 58,000 on a coastal island 8 feet above sea level, was the site of one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history: an unnamed hurricane in 1900 that killed between 6,000 and 12,000 people and practically wiped the city off the map.

The last major hurricane to strike the Houston area was Category 3 Alicia in 1983. It flooded downtown Houston, spawned 22 tornadoes and left 21 persons dead.

At the Galveston Community Center, where 1,500 evacuees had been put on school buses to points inland, another lesson from Katrina was put into practice: To overcome the reluctance of people to evacuate without their pets, they were allowed to bring them along in crates.

“It was quite a sight,” said Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas. “We were able to put people on with their dog crates, their cat crates, their shopping carts. It went very well.”

Some 600 public housing residents were among those evacuated by bus, and city officials reassured residents no one would be left behind.

Crude oil prices rose again on fears that Rita would smash into 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.

As Rita swirled away from Florida, thousands of residents who evacuated the Keys began returning to find that the storm had caused little more than minor flooding. Crews worked to restore electricity, store owners pulled the plywood off windows on the main drag, Duval Street, and seaweed and sand were cleared from the streets.

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