Million ordered to flee rita

Vast storm continues to strengthen, bears down on Texas-La. coast

Hurricane Rita

September 22, 2005|By Arthur Hirsch, Dennis O'Brien and Frank D. Roylance | Arthur Hirsch, Dennis O'Brien and Frank D. Roylance,Sun reporters

HOUSTON -- More than a million people on the Texas and Louisiana coastline were ordered yesterday to head for shelter from the fury of Hurricane Rita, which was roaring toward land with 175-mph winds and shaping up as one of the most intense Atlantic hurricanes on record.

Traffic was gridlocked throughout Houston, the country's fourth-largest city, where residents of low-lying neighborhoods were told to evacuate as the storm whipped up strength quickly over the Gulf of Mexico, muscling up through the day from a 115-mph Category 2 to a Category 5, the most powerful.

People also were ordered to clear out of parts of Corpus Christi, sections of Louisiana and Galveston, where traffic was jammed in the northbound lanes of Interstate 45, the main highway between Galveston and Houston.

With Rita projected to hit Texas by Saturday, Gov. Rick Perry urged residents along the state's entire coast to begin leaving. And New Orleans braced for the possibility that the storm could swamp the misery-stricken city all over again.

"When it's a matter of life and death, you just gotta get out," said Tommy Boger, who was renting a car at William P. Hobby Airport in Houston yesterday afternoon and planning to head for his grandparents' place in Huntsville, Ala.

Boger had just quit his $115-a-day job on a tugboat in the Port of Houston because his boss said he could not leave.

The news about Rita from the National Hurricane Center in Miami could hardly have been worse, as it reported last night that the hurricane had become the third most-powerful on record.

Atmospheric pressure in its eye late yesterday was just above Katrina's lowest reading and could approach the lowest ever measured in an Atlantic storm - Hurricane Gilbert in 1988.

Landfall could occur "anywhere on the Texas coast," said hurricane specialist Stacy Stewart. "We certainly cannot rule out a direct strike on the Houston-Galveston area, or east of there. A lot can happen between now and then. That's why everyone on the Texas coast needs to take this seriously."

Only three Category 5 hurricanes are known to have hit the U.S. mainland - most recently, Andrew, which smashed South Florida in 1992.

Katrina had weakened to a 145-mph Category 4 storm just before pounding ashore.

Rita, too, is likely to fluctuate in strength, "but it's difficult to say how much it's going to weaken," Stewart said.

"A good thing about a Category 5 is that they don't tend to stay Category 5 very long. That doesn't mean it can't weaken and grow back to Category 5. Ivan [in 2004] was a Category 5 three times."

Government officials eager to show they had learned their lessons from the sluggish response to Katrina 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.

Cliff Bost, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation's Corpus Christi district, said traffic was moving well on the main route out, Interstate 37.

"We have opened up an added evacuation lane," on I-37 northbound, Bost said, adding that about a dozen emergency patrols would be out with supplies of gasoline, water and air for tires. He said tow trucks were on standby, and heavy equipment was being stationed around his 10-county district to be ready to begin clearing debris after Rita passes.

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

By late afternoon, Rita was centered more than 700 miles southeast of Corpus Christi. With its breathtaking size - tropical storm-force winds extending 175 miles in all directions - practically the entire western end of the Gulf Coast was in peril, and even a slight eastward turn could prove devastating to the fractured levees protecting New Orleans.

Construction crews there worked frantically yesterday to shore up the damaged levee system before any rain or tidal surge from Rita could arrive. A caravan of dump trucks idled along Robert E. Lee Boulevard on the city's east side, waiting to pour crushed rock into a hole in the London Avenue Canal levee, one of six breeches that flooded the city but have been temporarily filled.

Truck driver Mike Sanders has been hauling material to the holes since the storm hit and said he has had to drive farther each time to find a pit or quarry with available rock or sand.

"They're running out, we've put so much in there," Sanders said.

A block away, heavy equipment crews were preparing to drive sheets of steel into the London Avenue Canal to essentially dam it up and hold any rising water from Lake Pontchartrain.

Army Corps spokesman Mitch Frazier said New Orleans could withstand up to six inches of rain without serious flooding.

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