- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2005

HOUSTON — Hurricane Rita closed in on the nation’s fourth-largest city and the heart of the U.S. oil-refining industry with 145 mph winds yesterday, sending hundreds of thousands of people fleeing in a bumper-to-bumper exodus.

Yesterday afternoon, however, the storm defied earlier projections, turning northward onto a course that could spare Houston and nearby Galveston a direct hit.

Police officers carried gasoline to motorists who ran out in 14-hour traffic jams, hotels filled up all the way to the Oklahoma and Arkansas line, and evacuees who got tired of waiting turned around and went home.

“This is the worst planning I’ve ever seen,” said Judie Anderson, who covered just 45 miles in 12 hours after setting out from her home in the Houston suburb of LaPorte. “They say we’ve learned a lot from Hurricane Katrina. Well, you couldn’t prove it by me.”

In all, nearly 2 million people along the Texas and Louisiana coast were urged to get out of the way of Rita, a 400-mile-wide storm that weakened yesterday from a top-of-the-scale Category 5 hurricane to a Category 4 as it swirled across the Gulf of Mexico.

Yesterday’s change of course could send Rita away from Houston and Galveston and instead draw the hurricane toward Port Arthur, Texas, or Lake Charles, La., at least 60 miles up the coast, by late today or early tomorrow .

But it was still an extremely dangerous storm — and one aimed at a section of coastline with the nation’s biggest concentration of oil refineries, about 25 percent. Its approach already was driving up crude oil prices, which, in turn, will raise gas prices.

In New Orleans, Rita’s steady rains yesterday were the first measurable precipitation since Katrina. The forecast was for 3 to 5 inches in the coming days — dangerously close to the amount engineers said could send floodwaters pouring back into neighborhoods that have been dry for less than a week.

“Right now, it’s a wait and see, and hope for the best,” said Mitch Frazier, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, which added sandbags to shore up levees and installed 60-foot sections of metal across some of the city’s canals to protect against storm surges.

But as the rain fell, there were ominous signs the protection might not be enough. In the city’s lower 9th Ward, where water broke through a levee and caused some of the worst flooding, there was standing water a foot deep in areas that were dry a day earlier.

At 11 p.m. EDT, Rita was centered about 350 miles southeast of Galveston and was moving about 10 mph. Its winds were near 145 mph, down from 175 mph earlier in the day.

Forecasters predicted the storm would make a gradual turn to the northwest today before coming ashore somewhere along a 350-mile stretch of the Texas and Louisiana coast that includes Port Arthur near the midpoint.

To speed the evacuation, Texas Gov. Rick Perry halted all southbound traffic into Houston along Interstate 45 and took the unprecedented step of 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.

The evacuation was a traffic nightmare, with red brake lights streaming out of Houston and its low-lying suburbs as far as the eye could see.

Highways leading inland out of Houston, a metropolitan area of 4 million people about an hour’s drive from the shore, were clogged for up to 100 miles north of the city.

Texas authorities asked the Pentagon for help in getting gasoline to drivers stuck in traffic, and sent gasoline tankers to take up positions along evacuation routes to help.

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 Mr. 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.

By late last night, the traffic bottlenecks were improving, with congestion easing on many major arteries leaving Houston, said Robert Black, spokesman for the governor.

Forecasters warned of a storm surge of 15 to 20 feet, battering waves, and rain of up to 15 inches along the Texas and western Louisiana coast.

The U.S. mainland has not been hit by two Category 4 storms in the same year since 1915. Katrina came ashore Aug. 29 as a Category 4 hurricane.

The Texas governor recalled state National Guardsmen and other emergency personnel and equipment from Louisiana to get ready for Rita.

Residents also jammed Houston’s two major airports seeking flights inland, including many people who did not have reservations. “That is not going to happen,” said Richard Fernandez, a spokesman for the city’s aviation department.

Adding to problems was a shortage of security screeners, many of whom did not show up for work because they live in areas under mandatory evacuations. Airport officials flew in screeners from other Texas cities.

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.

Although Houston is 60 miles inland, it is a low-lying, flat, sprawling city whose vast stretches of concrete cover clay soil that does not easily soak up water. The city is beribboned with seven bayous that overflow their banks even in a strong thunderstorm. Those bayous feed into the Ship Channel, Clear Lake and Galveston Bay.

Scientists have warned that the storm surge from a hurricane could cause the bayous’ currents to reverse, pushing water back into the city and swamping mostly poor, Hispanic neighborhoods on the southeast side of Houston.

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.

Texas authorities also planned to airlift at least 9,000 persons from Beaumont and Houston, including nursing home residents and the homeless.

“Now is not a time for warnings. Now is a time for action,” Houston Mayor Bill White said.

Galveston looked like a ghost town. 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 natural disaster.

Galveston City Manager Steve LeBlanc said the storm surge from Rita could reach 50 feet. Galveston is protected by a nearly 11-mile-long granite sea wall 17 feet high.

“Not a good picture for us,” Mr. LeBlanc said.

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