Rita turns, they run

DRIFTING NORTH: The hurricane makes a surprise sidestep, increasing flooding worries in New Orleans.

By wire services
Published September 23, 2005

HOUSTON - Hurricane Rita closed in on the Gulf Coast and the heart of the U.S. oil-refining industry with howling 145 mph winds Thursday, but a sharper-than-expected turn to the right set it on a course that could spare Houston and nearby Galveston a direct hit.

The storm's march toward land sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the nation's fourth-largest city in a frustratingly slow, bumper-to-bumper exodus.

"This is the worst planning I've ever seen," said Judie Anderson, who covered just 45 miles in 12 hours after setting out from her home in the Houston suburb of LaPorte. "They say we've learned a lot from Hurricane Katrina. Well, you couldn't prove it by me."

Nearly 2-million people along the Texas and Louisiana coasts were urged to get out of the way of Rita, a 400-mile-wide storm that weakened Thursday from a top-of-the-scale Category 5 hurricane to a Category 4 as it swirled across the Gulf of Mexico.

The storm's course change could send it away from Houston and Galveston and instead draw the hurricane toward Port Arthur, Texas, or Lake Charles, La., at least 60 miles up the coast, by tonight or early Saturday.

But it was still an extremely dangerous storm - and one aimed at a section of coastline with the nation's biggest concentration of oil refineries. Environmentalists warned of the possibility of a toxic spill from the 87 chemical plants and petroleum installations that represent more than one-fourth of U.S. refining capacity.

Rita also brought rain to already battered New Orleans, raising fears that the city's Katrina-damaged levees would fail and flood the city all over again.

President Bush said Thursday that he would pack his foul-weather gear and head to Texas ahead of Hurricane Rita today, making clear that he is directing an all-out federal effort to cope with the storm.

"Officials at every level of government are preparing for the worst," Bush said. He said they were working together "to respond swiftly and effectively."

At 8 p.m. EDT, Rita was centered about 350 miles east-southeast of Galveston and was moving at about 10 mph. Its winds were near 145 mph, down from 175 mph earlier in the day. Forecasters predicted it would come ashore somewhere along a 350-mile stretch of the Texas and Louisiana coast that includes Port Arthur near the midpoint.

Forecasters warned of the possibility of a storm surge of 15 to 20 feet, battering waves, and rain of as much as 15 inches along the Texas and western Louisiana coast.

The evacuation was a traffic nightmare, with brake lights streaming out of Houston and its low-lying suburbs as far as the eye could see. Highways leading inland out of Houston, a metropolitan area of 4-million people about an hour's drive from the shore, were clogged for as much as 100 miles north of the city.

Drivers ran out of gas in 14-hour traffic jams or looked in vain for a place to stay as hotels filled up all the way to the Oklahoma and Arkansas line. Others got tired of waiting in traffic and turned around and went home.

Police officers along the highways carried gas to motorists whose tanks were on empty. Texas authorities also asked the Pentagon for help in getting gasoline to drivers stuck in traffic.

To speed the evacuation, Gov. Rick Perry halted all southbound traffic into Houston along I-45 and took the unprecedented step of opening all eight lanes to northbound traffic out of the city for 125 miles. I-45 is the primary evacuation route north from Houston and Galveston.

Perry urged evacuees to stay calm and be patient.

"You've done the right thing by leaving two days before Hurricane Rita makes landfall," he said. "You will get out of the coastal region on time. It's just going to take some time."

The traffic jam also extended well into Louisiana. Drivers stayed in the same place so long that passengers had time to get out and stretch their legs and talk to other evacuees.

Gas stations all along I-10 were closed. At the rare stations that were open, cars were in lines seven and eight deep. Most took the wait in stride.

Greg Roy of Port Arthur, Texas, stopped to gas up in Lake Charles, La. It took him four hours to travel what is normally a 45-minute drive. The family plans to stay with family in Monroe, La.

"We've done it before," said Roy, a Texas native. "We're used to it. We've evacuated all my life."

Roy told his children, Jeremiah, 15, and Caitlin, 10, that they should "get used to it."

Asad Khan was managing the Delta Food Mart in Sulpher, La., one of the few gas stations still open. He planned to remain open as long as he could, even though people had driven off with $200 worth of gas without paying Thursday.

"People are acting crazy," he said. "We are doing what we can."

Cynethia Pichon Gray started driving from her home in Houston at 3 a.m. Thursday. After driving almost 12 hours to Lake Charles, she heard on the radio that Rita's forecast track had moved east of Houston. So she decided to go back home.

"There's nothing there," she said of Louisiana, where she had no place to stay. "We have no choice but to go back."

As far away as Baton Rouge, whose population has doubled since Katrina, cars streamed into gas stations. Many drivers filled up gas cans. At a Wal-Mart, water and other supplies were in high demand, and lines were long.

In Galveston, a city rebuilt after an unnamed 1900 hurricane killed between 6,000 and 12,000 residents in what is still the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, the once-bustling tourist island was all but abandoned, with at least 90 percent off its 58,000 residents cleared out.

The city pinned its hopes on its 11-mile-long, 17-foot-high granite seawall to protect it from the storm surge, and a skeleton crew of police and firefighters to ward off potential looters.

"Whatever happens is going to happen and we are going to have a monumental task ahead of us once the storm passes," said City Manager Steve LeBlanc. "Galveston is going to suffer and we are going to need to get it back in order as soon as possible."

Some Galveston residents refused to leave, saying they preferred to ride out the storm.

"One police officer drove up to me and told me, "You're going to die!' pointing his big finger at me," said Juanita Levine, 58, a retired nurse, who decided to stay put with her sister, Mary Allen, 61. "I told him I was staying right here, not running to some big expensive hotel. I have faith in God."

The last major hurricane to strike the Houston area was Category 3 Alicia in 1983. It flooded downtown Houston, spawned 22 tornadoes and left 21 people dead.

However, storms much smaller than Hurricane Rita have caused serious flooding in Houston. In June 2001, Tropical Storm Allison stalled over Southeast Texas for five days, dumping nearly 37 inches of rain and causing almost $5-billion in damage. Downtown Houston was inundated, forcing the evacuation of patients from the Texas Medical Center complex when basement generators failed.

Along the coast, petrochemical plants began shutting down and hundreds of workers were evacuated from offshore oil rigs. Environmentalists warned of a worst-case scenario in which a storm surge pushed spilled oil or chemicals from the bayous into the city of Houston itself, inundating mostly poor, Hispanic neighborhoods on its south side.

Perry said state officials had been in contact with plants that are "taking appropriate procedures to safeguard their facilities."

In New Orleans, Rita's steady rains Thursday were the first measurable precipitation since Katrina. The forecast was for 3 to 5 inches in the coming days - dangerously close to the amount engineers said could send floodwaters pouring back into neighborhoods that have been dry for less than a week.

"Right now, it's a wait-and-see and hope-for-the-best," said Mitch Frazier of the Army Corps of Engineers, which added sandbags to shore up levees and installed 60-foot sections of metal across some of the city's canals to protect against storm surges.

But as the rain fell, there were ominous signs it might not be enough. In the city's lower Ninth Ward, where water broke through a levee earlier this month and caused some of the worst flooding, there was standing water a foot deep in areas that were dry a day earlier.

Maj. Barry Guidry of the U.S. Army offered a dire assessment after examining the leakage at the Industrial Canal. "The levee's going to cave in," Guidry said as darkness began to fall. "In the middle of the night, this thing is going to be gone."

Katrina's death toll in Louisiana rose to 832 on Thursday, pushing the body count to at least 1,069 across the Gulf Coast. But workers under contract to the state to collect the bodies were taken off the streets of New Orleans because of the approaching storm.

In southwestern Louisiana, anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 residents along the state's southwest coast were urged to evacuate and state officials planned to send in buses to take evacuees, some of whom had already fled Katrina.

"Rita has Louisiana in her sights," Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said. "Head north. You cannot go east, you cannot go west. If you know the local roads that go north, take those."

As for those who refuse to leave, she said: "Perhaps they should write their Social Security numbers on their arms with indelible ink."

National Guard and medical units were put on standby. Helicopters were being positioned, and search-and-rescue boats from the state wildlife department were staged on high ground. Blanco said she also asked for 15,000 more federal troops.

FEMA said it has 45 truckloads of ice, 45 truckloads of water, six truckloads of tarpaulins and portable generators for hospitals and nursing homes on standby in Austin, Texas.

The U.S. mainland has not been hit by two Category 4 storms in the same year since 1915. Katrina came ashore as a Category 4.

Times staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report, which includes information from the New York Times, Washington Post, Dallas Morning News, Associated Press and Knight Ridder news service.