NO RELIEF FOR NEW ORLEANS: Levees are breached and water is again on the rise as Hurricane Rita heads on to Texas.
By ANITA KUMAR, JENNIFER IBERTO and THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published September 24, 2005
BEAUMONT, Texas - Hurricane Rita began lashing the Texas-Louisiana coast late Friday, a huge storm that threatened to drench a region still vulnerable and worn to a frazzle by Hurricane Katrina.
Forecasters expected the massive system to come ashore near the east Texas oil refining town of Beaumont early this morning and then stall, dumping up to 2 feet of rain in some locations.
That will likely mean severe flash flooding, particularly in low-lying spots and urban areas where there is lots of concrete. In Texas, forecasters warn of such flooding in Texarkana, Nacogdoches, Lufkin, Tyler, Houston and Beaumont. In Louisiana, Shreveport, Bossier City, Lake Charles, and possibly Monroe and Alexandria are at risk.
Rita is "like a sponge and it's going to squeeze itself over all the land," said National Hurricane Center meteorologist Mark McInerney.
The region has been dry in recent weeks, meaning lakes, rivers and streams are low and would need prolonged rain to flood.
Once a terrifying Category 5 storm with 175-mph winds, Rita weakened to a still-powerful Category 3 hurricane packing 120 mph winds.
Its advance squalls were enough to breach New Orleans levees in two places Friday, sending water into the Lower Ninth Ward and other neighborhoods for the second time in less than a month.
Within hours, water rose to 8 feet in some areas, and up to a foot in others, including the outskirts of downtown.
Officials feared more failures in New Orleans' famously flawed levee system as forecasters predicted Rita could bring 3 to 5 inches of rain to the city. That was dangerously close to the 6 inches the Army Corps of Engineers said could overwhelm the patched levees.
That wasn't counting the storm surge that could push water through the walls.
Rita was expected to hit Beaumont and nearby Port Arthur, Texas, and Lake Charles, La., with a 20-foot storm surge. Several large oil refineries are based along the shore near Beaumont, the birthplace of the modern oil industry.
Environmentalists warned of the risk of a toxic spill, and business analysts said Rita could cause already-high gasoline prices to rise to as much as $4 a gallon.
Along the Texas-Louisiana coast and into Houston, the advancing storm created scenes like those in a disaster film Friday, with humankind stumbling as it tried to run from harm.
Thousands of drivers remained stranded Friday to the north and west of Houston. Many were stuck out of gas in extreme heat, as fuel trucks and evacuation buses - rumored to be on the way - never came.
A spectacular bus fire that killed two dozen nursing home residents fleeing Houston clogged traffic south of Dallas, and freeways were red rivers of taillights stretching to the horizon.
Drivers grew frustrated, angry and desperate, scattered and stranded across a broad swath of the state as the storm bore down. Many slept in their cars and were forced to relieve themselves outside. They wished for hot food, cold water and fuel.
Houston decided not to open shelters to the general public. Instead, officials urged residents to flee, and some 2.8-million people did just that. The result was three days of gridlock all around the city.
In an age of terrorist danger and with memories of the nightmare in New Orleans still fresh, the Texas exodus raised a troubling question: Can any American city empty itself safely and quickly?
"The preparations are what they are," said Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who also headed the military response to Katrina. "We're here. The storm is coming. We are as best prepared as we can be as the eye of the storm approaches."
Houston opened special needs shelters for the disabled and the homeless but would not reveal the locations for fear the buildings would be swamped with people.
Local officials had to turn away residents who sought shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center and the Astrodome, both of which used to house Katrina victims. They asked the media to help spread the word that people should ride the storm out at home if they hadn't left yet.
Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, the equivalent of a county administrator, said the local hurricane plan created a decade ago relied on evacuations, not shelters.
"It's dangerous to shelter in Houston," he said. "We want them to go to Dallas."
Eckels said the area's buildings can't withstand hurricane-force winds and that it was safer to leave or even stay at home than go to a shelter. After the hurricane passes, he said shelters might open to house residents whose homes were damaged.
Even as scores of people remain stranded on Texas freeways, local and federal officials congratulated each other on their teamwork and response.
"All the full resources have been mobilizing for days and days and days," Houston Mayor Bill White said, standing in front of a congressional delegation.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry said, "I think when you look behind later, it will be almost miraculous that this many people were moved out of harm's way."
Some of his constituents disagreed.
"We are supposed to be the richest country in the world," said Albert Ruben, a juvenile detention officer whose exodus from the Texas Gulf Coast had utterly failed. "But what I have seen from the government so far is just pitiful."
Chris George became stranded in Sealy, 50 miles west of Houston, after driving 70 miles in 24 hours on his way to Dallas. He camped out at a parking lot and eventually was rescued by a local resident who drove him to one of the few gas stations still open.
"I was alone," said George, 18. "I had nowhere to go."
Local officials said they planned one last sweep of the highways to pick up stranded motorists and evacuate them by bus. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said they had 500 people in the state, had placed food, water and tarps in staging areas, and had search and rescue and medical crews standing by.
President Bush planned to monitor the storm from the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colo. The facility was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as the military's homeland security command center.
Bush had planned to go to San Antonio, Texas, but dropped that visit because search and rescue teams there were being relocated as the storm shifted course, the White House said.
"There will be no risk of me getting in the way, I promise you," the president said.
In New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers and National Guardsmen dealing with vulnerable levees made a strategic decision born of desperation.
Instead of repairing breaches to the canals, they blocked the canals where they meet Lake Pontchartrain, using sandbags, cement and giant sheets of plywood.
The hasty fix under Rita's gloomy forward bands blocked the canals from doing their usual job of carrying away rain from the bowl-shaped city. But it helped shore up the system against Rita's storm surge, which officials calculated would be more of a threat than rainwater.
In nearby St. Bernard Parish - heavily flooded by Katrina - water from a new breach was threatening from one side. A storm surge along a bayou was lapping at the top of a levee on the other side.
Mark Madary, a parish council member, said houses that were under 12 feet of water after Katrina probably would get an additional 3 feet. He accused the Army Corps of Engineers of not rebuilding the levee properly.
"Everybody's home has been crushed," Madary said, "and let's hope their dreams aren't."
Times staff writers Curtis Krueger and Alex Leary contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press and the Washington Post.
[Last modified September 24, 2005, 01:01:06]
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