Hurricane Rita expanded into a mammoth Category 5 storm and lumbered slowly Wednesday toward Texas, fortified by fierce 175-mph winds. Coastal highways clogged with cars and buses loaded with evacuees as more than 1 million residents were ordered to leave beach cities and low-lying sections of Houston.
The storm is “now the third most intense hurricane in the Atlantic Basin on record,” the National Hurricane Center said Wednesday night. Early today, forecasters said the storm’s center was 540 miles east-southeast of Galveston and about 645 miles east-southeast of Corpus Christi, Texas, moving west at 9 mph toward the western Gulf Coast.
Drawing explosive energy from the warm surface water of the Gulf of Mexico, the storm quickly grew during the day from a potent Category 3 storm, with 130-mph gusts, into a maelstrom rarely recorded in modern annals of American weather. The storm was expected to make landfall Saturday, but the first probes of raking winds could be expected as early as Friday, meteorologists said.
Only three recorded Category 5 hurricanes have ever struck the continental U.S., and National Weather Service experts said that under current climate conditions, the storm could gather even more strength over the gulf. Hurricane Katrina was a Category 4 storm when it rampaged through the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, causing extensive flooding that killed at least 1,036 and left hundreds missing.
“At this point, Rita has become a potentially very devastating Category 5 hurricane,” said Chris Landsea, a National Hurricane Center meteorologist. “Fortunately it’s over the open ocean of the Gulf of Mexico, and will be over the open ocean for the next day. But we expect it to gradually make a turn to the north.”
Frightened by Katrina’s example and stern warnings from authorities that Rita could land anywhere along the Texas-Louisiana coast, hundreds of thousands of residents streamed north from Galveston and surrounding coastal counties.
As 1.3 million of the region’s 5.2 million residents were ordered to uproot, Houston’s hospitals and nursing homes emptied and schools closed. Outbound highway traffic was snarled, and long lines formed at gas station pumps. Late Wednesday, the coastal city of Corpus Christi ordered its 277,000 residents to join Galveston’s nearly 60,000 residents in a mandatory evacuation.
President Bush declared federal emergencies in Texas and Louisiana as thousands of National Guard troops began moving out of harm’s way, preparing to wait in safe staging areas before redeploying to new disaster zones.
“We hope and pray that Hurricane Rita will not be a devastating storm, but we’ve got to be ready for the worst,” Bush said as federal and military emergency officials marshaled resources for the new storm, pressing to improve on their hesitant preparations and sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina three weeks ago.
In Galveston’s port and elsewhere along the coast, oil refineries began shutting down in advance of Rita’s high winds and waves. In the gulf, operations ceased on oil rigs as crews were flown out by helicopter. At least 16 refineries dot the Texas coastline from Corpus Christi to Port Arthur, composing more than one-quarter of the nation’s capacity to make fuel.
Wholesale prices rose in energy markets as traders worried about new disruptions to oil and natural gas production after the devastation caused by Katrina. The cost of crude oil for delivery in October rose 60 cents to $66.80 on the New York Mercantile Exchange, and gasoline futures jumped 8 cents to $2.053 a gallon.
National Weather Service warnings that gulf tides would rise as much as 4 feet along the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts hastened preparations in the Katrina disaster zones, where thousands remained homeless and military teams still searched for corpses.
“It’s getting to be a large-sized hurricane,” Landsea said. “If the storm hits Texas, some of the rain and the squall conditions will affect other areas as well -- and probably Louisiana.”
In New Orleans, Army Corps of Engineers crews laid heavy steel barriers over two levees breached three weeks ago by a torrent of water from Lake Pontchartrain that flooded 80% of the city. Most of New Orleans was dry Wednesday, but after two brief days of revival, the city was fast becoming a ghost metropolis again, as residents evacuated in buses and troops prepared to move to safer areas to the north.
Louisiana officials said an estimated 9,700 residents of Cameron Parish on the border with Texas were told to leave their homes. At least 2,662 people housed in shelters since Katrina struck were relocated to facilities farther north in the state, and 5,054 more were scheduled to be moved, probably today.
In Houston, 50 miles north of the storm’s possible landfall point, NASA closed its Johnson Space Center and evacuated its staff, transferring control over the International Space Station and two space-bound astronauts to Russian partners.
Houston Mayor Bill White told hundreds of thousands of residents who lived near bayous and along low-lying flood plains to seek safety in shelters or move to higher ground. He also ordered mobile home park residents to evacuate, worried that the structures were too flimsy to withstand Rita’s punishing winds.
“We are asking all residents of Houston and the greater Houston area who are in the storm surge area to begin making their evacuation plans,” White said.
Acknowledging that chartered buses might not be able to take everyone in need, White called on residents to act as good Samaritans and take in neighbors who had no means to evacuate.
“There will not be enough government vehicles to evacuate everyone,” he said. “Citizens are the first line of defense.”
A Category 5 storm, the maximum reading on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, has sustained winds greater than 155 mph and would devastate many urban structures in its path. Storm surges would erase beaches and flood for miles inland. Battering winds would cause roof failure on many industrial buildings and residences, sweep away mobile homes and uproot trees, streetlights and road signs.
Almost immediately after Rita headed away from the Florida Keys on Tuesday, towering cumulonimbus clouds at the hurricane’s center aligned themselves in a picture-perfect circle as the storm drew strength from the gulf’s balmy seawater.
“The clouds keep the heat locked in, and that helps a hurricane develop quite explosively,” said T.N. Krishnamurti, professor of meteorology at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
As it churned slowly over the Gulf of Mexico, Rita nourished on gulf waters heated to 82 degrees Fahrenheit, strengthening on perfect conditions for the growth of a mammoth hurricane. The atmosphere’s wind direction, cloud formation and the moisture content of the ambient air combined to expand the storm’s girth and energy. “All the factors we looked for were favorable,” said Krishnamurti, whose model of hurricane tracking and intensity forecasting is followed closely by weather experts.
Climate and weather conditions conducive to the spawning of hurricanes have remained favorable throughout this hurricane season, which runs from June 1 through Nov. 30. Unusually warm ocean water and jet-stream pattern changes are credited for the birth of 17 tropical storms, including nine hurricanes -- Katrina and Rita among them. The record hurricane season was in 1933, when 21 tropical storms gathered.
Weather experts said there was still a possibility that the storm might diminish, but for caution’s sake, they emphasized its dangers, adding that they could not be certain where it would land -- describing the coastal zone between Corpus Christi and Galveston as the likely target.
Both cities are achingly familiar with the devastation wrought by hurricanes. An unnamed storm that tore through Galveston in September 1900, killing more than 8,000 people, is the most lethal hurricane to strike the United States. A Category 4 storm ravaged Corpus Christi in 1919, killing more than 500 people and sinking at least 10 ships in the Gulf of Mexico.
Hours before Corpus Christi leaders made the decision to evacuate the city Wednesday, Navy officials had begun evacuating pilots and crews from the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station. City officials said they were preparing to press residents to leave Mustang and Padre islands, which are prone to flooding during storms.
Corpus Christi spokesman Ted Nelson said city crews would begin erecting aluminum “storm surge gates” at pivotal intersections in the city’s port. The gates are designed to prevent flooding downtown, Nelson said.
In Galveston, a barrier island 8 feet above sea level, work crews began reinforcing the city’s seawall with sandbags. As they worked, beachfront hotels emptied and boat owners loaded their fuel tanks before sailing out or battening down at the city docks.
Yachts and powerboats were lining up at Galveston Party Boats, fueling up for the storm. “Most of them are planning to tie up their boats here, so they want a full tank for whatever happens,” crewman Steve Bowling said.
Galveston is attached to the mainland by a narrow bridge, part of Interstate 45. Officials planned to close the bridge to traffic into Galveston at 6 p.m. Wednesday, when the mandatory evacuation was set to start.
Buses were rolling hours before the order went into effect. At noon, Lily Zuniga, a worker with the city’s Island Transit, estimated that 80 to 90 buses had left with about 1,000 residents. They were bound for Huntsville, north of Houston, which also faces possible evacuations in its low-lying areas.
As early as 8 a.m., spartan yellow school buses, plush air-conditioned charter coaches and smaller shuttles lined up at the Island Community Center, where hundreds of residents waited.
Raymond Green, 41, waited with his 13-year-old son, Marco, and his wife, Relonda. After viewing the televised images of Katrina over the last month, Green said the advancing new storm “scared me very much.”
“We are definitely not taking any chances,” he said. “I’m a refinery worker for BP. They shut it down. I’m taking my family.”
Medical authorities rushed to get ambulatory hospital and nursing home patients onto evacuation buses. They were prodded by recent reports of dozens of sick and elderly New Orleans-area patients who drowned in Katrina’s floodwaters or died in stifling heat while waiting to be evacuated.
At the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, a complex of six hospitals and four schools, about 300 patients were evacuated via ambulance throughout the day. The hospital estimated that six patients would remain. Too ill to be moved, they will be housed on high floors staffed by physicians and nurses.
Dr. John D. Stobo, president of UTMB, described the evacuation as “going very smoothly.” He said that officials “began planning for this evacuation before Katrina. We had no idea we’d have to be implementing the plan so soon.”
An estimated 1,200 employees have been identified as critical to the hospital’s operation, which normally has 300 to 400 patients, but Stobo said that the complex would reevaluate its staffing as the number of patients dwindled. He said the hospital had supplies, generators and enough people to care for the remaining patients.
Galveston’s City Hall was closed by Tuesday night, as were all of the city’s schools. Emphasizing that the evacuation order was aimed at every city resident, City Atty. Susie Green warned that water would be cut off to the island by Friday and emphasized that with hospitals closed and ambulances taken off the street in the hours before the storm hits, those who stayed would be on their own.
Farther up the coast, at Port Arthur, Mayor Oscar Ortiz ordered a 1 p.m mandatory evacuation for the community of Sabine Pass. The island area, with a population of 500 residents, would probably be struck by 10-foot storm surges in a Category 5 hurricane.
“We anticipate that everyone will be out in a few hours,” Ortiz said.
Along Trinity Bay, near Galveston, Chambers County Judge Jimmy Silvia pleaded with local residents to heed the evacuation order. “Please get out if we ask you,” he said. “Evacuation saves lives.”
In nearby Matagorda County, Sheriff James Mitchell added a threat to his local evacuation order, warning families who intended to ride out the hurricane that if they were caught during the storm, their children would be taken into custody and the parents would be charged with “child endangerment.”
La Ganga reported from Galveston, Dahlburg from Miami and Braun from Washington. Times staff writers Susannah Rosenblatt in Baton Rouge, La., Lianne Hart in Houston, Elizabeth Douglass in Los Angeles, Lynn Marshall in Seattle and John Beckham in Chicago contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Strongest U.S. hurricanes
*--* Year Name Area hit Category Dead 1900 Unnamed Galveston, Texas 4 8,000 1909 Unnamed Grand Isle, La. 4 350 1915 Unnamed New Orleans 4 275 1915 Unnamed Galveston 4 275 1919 Unnamed Florida Keys, Texas 4 500 1926 Unnamed Florida, Alabama 4 243 1928 Unnamed Lake Okeechobee, Fla. 4 1,800 1932 Unnamed Freeport, Texas 4 40 1935 Unnamed Florida 5 400 1947 Unnamed Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi 4 51 1954 Hazel South Carolina, North Carolina 4 95 1957 Audrey Louisiana, Texas 4 390 1960 Donna Eastern U.S. 4 50 1961 Carla Texas 4 46 1969 Camille Mississippi, Louisiana 5 256 1989 Hugo South Carolina 4 21 1992 Andrew Southern Florida, Louisiana 5 40-60 2004 Charley Florida 4 27 2005 Katrina Louisiana, Mississippi 4 1,000+
Compiled by Times Research Librarian Scott Wilson