Houston grateful to be spared brunt of hurricane

Hurricane Rita

September 25, 2005|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Reporter

HOUSTON // Thousands of people are without power. Rumors that a gas station might open prompted motorists to wait for hours at the pumps. And Houston officials warned of traffic jams as residents who had fled the city began returning.

But those are just annoyances. People in the nation's fourth-largest city are grateful that Hurricane Rita spared their lives and homes.

"We've been blessed. We're not nearly in as bad a shape as we might've been, or as we thought we might be," Galveston County Judge James D. Yarbrough told reporters.

"Sure we're relieved," said Woodrow Williams, 54, who stayed in his North Houston home through the storm and was still without power yesterday evening.

City and state officials pleaded with the 2 million people who left their homes before the storm to stay away for another day or two because of concerns that traffic could clog highways and slow efforts to bring gasoline, food and medical supplies to depleted stores, service stations and hospitals.

Government leaders were also asking major employers to remain closed tomorrow so that workers wouldn't try to rush back. In televised news conferences, they warned that few gas stations were open.

"Now is no time for Texans to let down their guard and venture out," said Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

But thousands returned home despite the official requests, beginning to crowd the same interstates that they had clogged a few days earlier, heading in the opposite direction.

They would come home to find that Hurricane Rita brought Houston its share of damage. There were hundreds of downed trees and power lines throughout the area, and up to 600,000 electrical customers - out of a customer base of 2 million - were without power yesterday. Most neighborhoods remained deserted and very few stores were open.

But the consensus is that Hurricane Rita spared the city much of her expected wrath.

"I'll tell you what: This community has pulled out OK," Houston Mayor Bill White said last night.

There were no deaths or serious injuries, winds never exceeded 50 mph and less than 2 inches of rain fell, causing considerably less damage than many of Houston's past storms.

The Houston Police Department received only 28 burglary calls between dusk Friday and early yesterday and made only 16 arrests, far less than a typical Friday night, White said.

When Rita made landfall at 3:30 a.m., it was centered close to the Texas-Louisiana border, about 60 miles east of Galveston, the coastal community near Houston where officials initially feared it would make landfall. By veering east, Rita spared much of both Houston and Galveston.

By about noon yesterday, the rain stopped, the winds died down and the sun came out. The most visible property damage in Houston was at Texas' tallest building, the 75-story JP Morgan Chase Tower, where Rita blew out 35 windows. A four-block area was closed so the broken glass could be cleared from around the building.

But even that was considered a minor price for a storm that was so threatening at its approach, officials said.

"If you would have told us Wednesday when we had a Category 5 headed our way that this was going to be our damage, we would've taken it," said Greg Hassell, a spokesman for Chase Bank.

Traffic in many Houston neighborhoods began picking up by late afternoon. For many people, one of the top priorities was the search for an open service station. Police were posted at the few stations that were open to control the crowds.

A line formed at a closed service station on Route 249 in North Houston about 2:30 p.m. yesterday based on a rumor that the station would open at 5.

"We are just going on hearsay, but I've got nothing else to do," said Reggie Rollins, 34, a professional wrestler who is known in the ring as "Big Buddah."

The gas tank on Rollins' Mitsubishi Eclipse was half-full. But he figured it might be worth the wait to top it off. "With everything closed, I've got nothing else to do and no where else to go," he said.

John Bethune, who had holed up at a hotel in Northwest Houston with his wife and two children, returned home yesterday.

He left his house when Rita approached because there had been flooding in the area during past storms. But he saw no reason to stay away yesterday, given that his home was undamaged.

"It could have been a lot worse," said Bethune, 41, as he watched tree branches swaying in the wind.

Some people yesterday said they were never really that alarmed by Rita, particularly when the storm veered away from them.

"I knew it wasn't going to be all that serious because the storm was east of us," said Tom Becktold, who operates the Good Times Marina near Lake Houston in Magnolia Gardens, a community about five miles northeast of Houston. The marina was closed yesterday, and there was no boat traffic, he said.

Becktold said that he has lived 20 years in Magnolia Gardens and weathered several hurricanes. An unnamed storm in 1994 flooded his shop, which is 22 feet above the water line. But he never once thought of evacuating. "I'm just an optimistic person," he said.

dennis.o'brien@baltsun.com

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