Fear, flight, frustration

As Rita heads for the Gulf Coast, residents make a slow escape

Texas, Louisiana brace for worst

Hurricane Rita

September 23, 2005|By Maria L. La Ganga and John-Thor Dahlburg

GALVESTON, TEXAS -- With more than 1.5 million people fleeing the coming wrath of a dangerous hurricane, officials in two states took extra precautions yesterday to ensure that Hurricane Rita is less of a disaster than Hurricane Katrina.

From the Texas coast to Louisiana, people took to the roads, heeding warnings to evacuate low-lying areas. Officials moved food, supplies and soldiers into place to deal with the aftermath of Rita, expected to make landfall early tomorrow.

Major freeways, especially around Houston, were at a near standstill, and there were reports that cars had run out of gas while stuck for up to 14 hours in traffic. Emergency supplies, bottled water, batteries, food and gasoline were in short supply.

Rita started the day as a Category 5 storm but was downgraded to a serious Category 4 storm. Its sustained winds were clocked at 150 mph, down from its peak of more than 165 mph. The dangerous storm was shifting to the east, officials said, and was expected to be at least Category 3 when it hits land somewhere around the region from Port Arthur, Texas, to Lake Charles, La.

Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, causing hundreds of billions of dollars in damage and killing more than 1,000 people.

Three levees broke in New Orleans because of the storm, forcing the evacuation of the flooded city.

New Orleans will probably not take a direct hit from Rita, but the National Hurricane Center upgraded the danger from Rita this afternoon, posting a tropical storm warning for the city. It began raining this morning in New Orleans, the first precipitation since the levees broke. Engineers rushed to shore up the broken levees for fear of another ruinous round of flooding.

Predictions are that New Orleans could receive 3 to 5 inches of rain. Engineers have warned that the levees can handle only 6 inches of rain and a storm surge of 10 to 12 feet.

A wary Mayor Ray Nagin told reporters this afternoon that officials are being cautious about Rita.

"We are not letting our guards down," the mayor said.

"Every time I look at the direction of the storm, it looks like it is pointing at New Orleans," he said. "But maybe I'm a little paranoid."

Rita's eye was about 400 miles from the Texas coast, the hurricane center said. The storm, pushing hurricane-force winds as far as 85 miles from its center, was moving west-northwest at almost 9 mph and was expected to make a gradual turn to the northwest in the next 24 to 36 hours, the center said.

Houston Mayor Bill White said the good news was that people have heeded the call to evacuate.

Traffic jams easing

Traffic jams in what White called the "largest evacuation in the city's history" are easing a bit because of the opening of lanes on major evacuation routes.

Residents alarmed by the jammed roadways should not be discouraged from leaving, White told reporters this afternoon.

"If you're in an area where you can lose your life, or you are subject to flood or a structure being blown down, you need to be making evacuation plans," White said.

Fuel trucks from Dallas and San Antonio were trying to reach Houston to provide gasoline to stranded motorists.

"We need to get people moving before the very dangerous winds hit," White said. "Being on the highway [when the storm hits] is a deathtrap."

The effects of Hurricane Rita began to reverberate throughout the nation's airline system after Continental Airlines and Southwest Airlines said they would cancel service out of Houston, one of the nation's busiest airline crossroads, beginning this afternoon.

Continental, which operates a major national and international hub in Houston, and Southwest have canceled all flights to and from Houston's Intercontinental and Hobby airports beginning at noon today. Houston airports handled more than 44 million passengers last year.

Continental said it will have to cancel nearly 2,000 flights today and tomorrow.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry said at a news conference in Austin that he had asked for 10,000 federal troops to help with search and rescue operations. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said she had asked for 15,000.

Blanco said Rita will affect most of the Louisiana coastline and some of the interior parishes in southwest Louisiana. She said that in some areas helicopters are having a difficult time flying because winds have reached 40 mph.

"We're hoping and praying that all of our people will evacuate so search and rescue efforts will be limited," she said at the afternoon briefing. "We continue to urge evacuation. We expect 15 to 20 inches of rain in certain places."

Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who is widely credited with establishing order in New Orleans during the chaotic early days, said troops were being repositioned as Rita slowly steers toward southern Louisiana.

Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, in charge of federal relief efforts for Katrina, said food, water and transportation have been relocated. He is also searching for additional shelters for Rita evacuees in other states.

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