Now gulf is facing wrath of Rita

Hurricane's rains could flood New Orleans again

September 21, 2005|By Robert Little and Frank D. Roylance | Robert Little and Frank D. Roylance,Sun reporters

NEW ORLEANS -- The cleanup crews and construction workers trying to fix this crippled city began to abandon it once again yesterday, heeding the warning of engineers who fear that residual rain and winds from Hurricane Rita might fracture the city's patchwork levee system and cause New Orleans to flood a second time.

Still worse news for many victims of Katrina, Rita's forecast takes it straight across the Gulf of Mexico to Texas and perhaps to Houston, where so many New Orleans evacuees have taken shelter. Houston officials began planning to move Katrina's evacuees to Arkansas.

"We do have the concern that many of the evacuees are housed in Texas and southwest Louisiana," said Robbie Berg, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "The local people will have to make decisions about where to send these people, should the hurricane head their way."

In New Orleans, frustrated business owners dropped their shovels and power washers yesterday and scrambled to secure their properties again in anticipation of Rita, which was strengthening in the gulf and threatens to strike Texas or Louisiana with 135-mph winds late this week. Military and utility crews made plans to dismantle their tent cities and evacuate, while federal officials prepared to move a military field hospital into the city's Convention Center, which will be a staging area for evacuating residents.

Eager to show they have learned from the mistakes that beset the evacuation and recovery efforts of Hurricane Katrina, federal officials said that they are stockpiling enough food and water to feed as many as 500,000 people, and that they plan to re-deploy military troops so they are able to respond quickly if a crisis arises.

"We're a lot smarter this time around," New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said at a news conference yesterday, flanked by federal and military officials. "We've been through it before, we've learned a lot of lessons and we're much better prepared."

Acting on one of those lessons, city officials said they do not plan to shelter evacuees at the city's Superdome or Convention Center, both of which held thousands after Hurricane Katrina and devolved into lawlessness and violence as supplies of food and water ran low. For Rita, city officials have reserved as many as 500 buses to evacuate citizens as they arrive at the Convention Center.

Traffic and activity in the city streets yesterday was the heaviest since Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29, and crews repairing electrical and telephone service continued unabated. But National Guard troops set up checkpoints throughout the city warning merchants, residents and anyone else on the streets that they must leave by tomorrow.

Weary homeowners and businessmen cursed the latest evacuation plans, which were announced the same day the mayor allowed the first citizens to return to the city, but also said they have learned to heed warnings about weather's capacity for destruction. "I think everyone's going to take it seriously after what happened last time, don't you?" asked Krystal DiMaggio as she helped retrieve belongings from her grandson's home in the flood-damaged Mid-City neighborhood.

"There's plenty of reason to worry," said her husband, Darryl. "It's lying all around us."

Rita achieved hurricane status soon after daybreak yesterday and grew, in just a few hours, to a Category 2 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. Its top sustained winds reached 100 mph.

The storm's eye threaded through the Florida Straits, brushing both the Florida Keys and Cuba with hurricane-force winds without making landfall, and forecasters expect it to strengthen in the Gulf of Mexico. The National Hurricane Center forecast put the storm's top winds by Friday at 135 mph - a Category 4 storm capable of producing a 13- to 18-foot storm surge and extensive property damage.

New Orleans remained yesterday at some risk of being in Rita's path, but as the day wore on chances that the storm would turn directly on the battered city seemed to diminish.

"New Orleans looks like it will escape the brunt," although the storm's outermost rain bands may still sweep the city, said Berg, the Hurricane Center meteorologist.

Even a brush with Rita could be catastrophic for New Orleans, however, because officials with the Army Corps of Engineers said that a modest storm surge or just a few inches of rain could overwhelm the compromised levees and flood the city. Also, any significant rainfall would strain the city's hard-pressed pumping system, which has not been restored to its pre-Katrina capacity. New Orleans officials say a glancing blow from Rita could be nearly as destructive as Katrina.

As floodwaters from that hurricane continue to recede, search crews are reaching more of the city's devastated neighborhoods, causing the death toll in Louisiana to jump by 90 to 736 as of Monday. The toll across the Gulf Coast was 973.

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