Texans flee storm surge, fear deluge

Moving Inland

Texas-LA. Border Hit

New Orleans floods as storm-driven water, rain breach levee

Hurricane Rita

September 24, 2005|By Maria L. LaGanga, Scott Gold and Stephen Braun

BEAUMONT, TEXAS -- A weakening Hurricane Rita howled toward the Texas and Louisiana coastline yesterday, its top winds at 120 mph, pushing water over a patched levee in New Orleans and paralyzing major highways for hours as more than 1 million people fled inland to avoid the storm.

The storm was downgraded to Category 3 at 11 a.m. by the National Hurricane Center, which continued to warn that Rita is a very dangerous storm.

Center official Ed Rappaport said Rita would hit land near the Louisiana-Texas border "just before daybreak."

At midafternoon, he predicted a storm surge of 15 to 20 feet that would reach its peak about midnight, with high tide. The surge will be strongest along the Louisiana coast, Rappaport said.

National Weather Service meteorologist Jason Hansford in Shreveport, La., predicted that Rita would hit the Gulf Coast and then "pretty much stall out." The result could be extremely heavy flooding.

"On the current track ... we're looking at widespread rainfall amounts of 8 to 15 inches, with some locations getting 20 to 25 inches," Hansford said yesterday afternoon.

Near Dallas, a bus carrying elderly evacuees exploded yesterday, killing 24 passengers. The bus, containing about 45 people from a nursing home in the Bellaire area of Houston, was turned into a charred shell shortly after 6 a.m. when the flames were extinguished..

But for the most part, according to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the evacuation of more than a million Texans from the coastal area was "orderly and calm," despite being "excruciatingly slow." Perry said that the evacuations were largely complete but that airlifts of special-needs residents continued by helicopter.

"We are prepared as a community," said Houston Mayor Bill White, "more prepared than any community has been. We have had the biggest evacuation in America, but don't be naive - trees will fall."

White said that the number of evacuees in Houston and the coastal region was "well into the seven figures."

Police Chief Tom Lambert said that a sweep of streets in the Houston area late this afternoon found 250 stranded motorists but that just 11 agreed to be evacuated.

This morning, Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, the chief executive for the county surrounding Houston, told residents who had not left to stay where they were for the storm.

Compared with the chaotic crush of motorists choking the freeways and snarling surface streets a day earlier, the streets today were nearly empty and the city was eerily quiet under darkening skies.

People evacuating from Houston and the low-lying towns to the south choked the northbound lanes of Interstate 45 north toward Dallas; the state opened southbound lanes to northerly traffic to help speed the evacuation.

Hotels that were housing evacuees from Hurricane Katrina were full yesterday as residents of low-lying areas came north and hunkered down. At the Fairfield Inn, the desk clerk spent the morning on the telephone trying to find gasoline for frantic guests.

A piece of white paper was taped to the glass door: "No Vacancy." Children played in the hallways.

In the hurricane's penumbra, winds whipped up tornadoes south of Baton Rouge. Meteorologists issued watches and warnings this morning covering the Gulf Coast between western Louisiana and western Florida.

In New Orleans, water poured into the city's evacuated Ninth Ward during the first significant rainfall since Hurricane Katrina nearly three weeks ago. The district was among the hardest hit during Katrina, and yesterday's downpour confirmed fears of another round of flooding.

Other areas of Louisiana also reported flooding. Freddie Richard, an emergency management official, said waters from the Gulf of Mexico were flooding with 2 feet of water in downtown Cameron, about 30 miles from the Texas border.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said 90 percent or more of the residents subject to mandatory evacuations have left the affected parishes.

The potent storm was extending out 100 miles from its center and formed cloud cover over much of the Gulf of Mexico.

The storm appeared headed toward the coast at Port Arthur, near Beaumont, a shipbuilding and petrochemical center. Most Gulf Coast oil refineries have shut down or sharply curtailed production in anticipation of the storm. Together they provide 27.5 percent of the U.S. capacity.

Yesterday, nearly all of the region's normal daily production of crude oil and 72 percent of natural gas production had been halted in advance of Rita or because of damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, the Minerals Management Service said.

Houston is expected to be hard hit, and the storm's shift puts its center closer to the refineries and energy production facilities of Beaumont and Port Arthur, which is bracing for widespread flooding.

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