- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2005

BEAUMONT, Texas — Hurricane Rita weakened to a Category 3 yesterday but remained a highly dangerous storm that was expected to slam into oil-refinery towns along the Texas coast and parts of Louisiana with a 20-foot storm surge, 25 inches of rain and 125-mph winds.

Even before it arrived, Rita wreaked havoc with a storm surge and heavy rain that inundated patched parts of New Orleans’ levees, causing a new round of flooding in the recently dried city. And as many as 24 evacuees of a Houston-area nursing home died when their bus caught fire outside Dallas.

The hurricane, which had been a top-of-the-scale Category 5, comes ashore early today on a course that could spare Houston and Galveston but batter the oil-refining towns of Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas, and Lake Charles, La.

“That’s where people are going to die,” said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center. “All these areas are just going to get absolutely clobbered by the storm surge.”

Late last night, southwestern Louisiana was soaked by driving rain and coastal flooding. Sugar-cane fields, ranches and marshlands were already under water at dusk in coastal Cameron Parish.

The sparsely populated region was almost evacuated, but authorities rushed to the aid of a man who had decided to ride out the storm in a house near the Gulf of Mexico after one of the man’s friends called for help.

They were turned back by flooded roads.

“He’s going to take the full brunt of this hurricane coming in,” sheriff’s Capt. James Hines said.

Rita threatened dozens of refineries and chemical plants along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast that represent a quarter of the nation’s oil-refining capacity. Environmentalists warned of the risk of a toxic spill, and business analysts said Rita could cause already-high gasoline prices to rise to as much as $4 a gallon.

In the storm’s cross hairs were the marshy towns along the Louisiana line: Port Arthur, a city of about 58,000 where the main industries include oil, shrimping and crawfishing; and Beaumont, a port city of about 114,000 that was the birthplace of the modern oil industry. It was in Beaumont that the Spindletop well erupted in a 100-foot gusher in 1901 and gave rise to such oil giants as Gulf, Humble and Texaco.

Kandy Huffman had no way to leave, and she pushed her broken-down car down the street to her home with plans to ride out the storm in an otherwise-deserted Port Arthur, where the streetlights were turned off and stores were boarded up.

“This isn’t my first rodeo. All you can do is pray for best,” she said as a driving rain started to fall. “We’re surrounded by the people we love. Even if we have to all cuddle up, we know where everybody is.”

In New Orleans, which had just drained nearly all the putrid floodwaters from Katrina, Rita’s wind and rain sent water gushing through a patched levee along the Industrial Canal and into the already-devastated lower 9th Ward and parts of neighboring St. Bernard Parish. The water rose to waist level.

About the same time, water streamed through another levee along the patched London Avenue Canal, swamping homes in the Gentilly neighborhood with 6 to 8 inches of water.

“Our worst fears came true,” said Maj. Barry Guidry, a National Guardsman on duty at the broken levee in the 9th Ward.

President Bush, mindful of criticism the federal government was slow to respond to Katrina, had planned to visit his home state to review the Rita response but canceled at the last minute to avoid slowing down the preparations. He planned to watch over the storm from the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs.

At least 2.8 million people fled a 500-mile stretch of the Louisiana-Texas coastline in a seemingly all-at-once evacuation that caused monumental traffic jams in which hundreds of cars broke down or ran out of gas. Traffic was still bumper-to-bumper yesterday from the outskirts of Houston toward Austin and Dallas.

In a traffic jam on Interstate 45 near Wilmer, southeast of Dallas, the bus caught fire, killing as many as 24 persons. Early indications were that mechanical problems caused the fire, and then passengers’ oxygen tanks started exploding in rapid succession.

The military sent cargo planes to evacuate hundreds of medical patients and others from Beaumont. Downtown Beaumont was all but deserted, with buildings boarded up and practically nothing moving but windblown plastic bags. On the horizon, covered in gray clouds, refinery torches belched black smoke.

Sherry Gates, whose husband is maintenance director of the Beaumont Hotel, planned to stay behind to protect the place from looters. The hotel, she said, can withstand whatever Rita brings. “This old girl,” she said, “will see us out.”

About 90 percent of Galveston’s 58,000 residents had cleared out, with the rest left to the mercy of a 17-foot sea wall that was built after a 1900 hurricane that killed 6,000 to 12,000 of the island’s residents in what is still the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

“I’d rather die in my house than on the street,” Linda Rieffannacht said as Rita’s outer bands began pushing waves onto the sea wall. “This way they will know where I am.”

In southwestern Louisiana, which was on the vulnerable east side of Rita and expected to get the brunt of a 20-foot storm surge, water was already lapping over roads in coastal Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes by midday. High winds flattened sugar-cane fields, knocked over old live oaks and lashed the low-lying landscape with driving winds.

In Lake Charles, home to the nation’s 12th-largest seaport and refineries run by ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil Corp., Citgo and Shell, nearly all 70,000 residents had evacuated. Several riverboat casinos that mostly serve tourists from Texas also closed ahead of the storm.

“We see these storms a little differently after Katrina,” said city administrator Paul Rainwater. “We all realize that no matter how safe you feel … you have to take it seriously, you have to plan.”

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said more than 90 percent of residents in southwestern parishes, about 150,000 people, had evacuated. For those who had not, she issued a warning: “You need to find a safe place to be. It is not safe to find yourself stranded on the highway. Get to the highest ground or the highest building in your area.”

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