With Hurricane Rita bearing down on the Texas and Louisiana coastline, authorities ordered more than 2 million people to flee inland, setting off marathon traffic jams that paralyzed major highways for hours, straining fuel supplies and spreading anxiety in both states.
After surging to a Category 5 hurricane with 175-mph winds, Rita eased to Category 4 by nightfall Thursday, still brimming with 140-mph winds that extended out at least 80 miles and forming massive cloud cover that loomed over half the Gulf of Mexico.
One day from Rita’s expected landfall, the storm taxed the massive preparations of a region still reeling from Hurricane Katrina and confronted fleeing evacuees with a cascade of personal crises.
Hundreds of thousands of Texans heading away from the area in cars and vans overloaded with possessions endured hours of gridlock in wilting 90-degree heat. Some spent an entire day in their cars, inching through traffic. Some diverted to gas stations only to find many pumps out of fuel. Long convoys of yellow school buses, lined as if on field trips, ferried thousands of poor and car-deprived residents who suffered long hours without air conditioning.
Long lines and chaos snarled evacuees when they tried to catch flights out from either of Houston’s airports. After about 100 federal security screeners failed to report to work Thursday, scores of passengers missed flights and waited for hours at sparsely monitored X-ray machines and luggage conveyors. Transportation Security Administration officials were at a loss for an explanation and scrambled to send in a team of replacement workers from Cleveland.
Forecasters said the hurricane would come ashore somewhere between Galveston and the Louisiana border, but emergency officials were told that the likely landfall point was near the Texas towns of Beaumont, Port Arthur and Sabine Pass. The National Weather Service warned of storm surges 15 to 20 feet high and the prospect of flooding miles inland.
“We’ve brought the winds down a little bit here, but it’s going over a warm eddy in the Gulf of Mexico tonight,” warned Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. “We actually think it has a chance to strengthen again tonight and in the early morning hours.”
Even 400 miles out in the gulf, the hurricane spun advance tendrils of rain over flood-weary New Orleans and swelled tides along the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts by 2 feet. The weather service declared a tropical storm warning in southern Louisiana and cautioned that the hurricane probably would gather strength overnight.
At the National Hurricane Center in Miami, meteorologist Chris Landsea described the stormy bursts over New Orleans as “Rita’s outer rain bands” and said Rita could shower the city with 3 to 5 inches of rain. “The expectation is the worst weather won’t affect New Orleans,” Landsea said. “But it will make it more problematic for the recovery efforts there.”
The Army Corps of Engineers said the city’s battered levee system could handle 6 inches of rain, but the greatest concern remains the possibility of a storm surge.
Oil companies shut down refineries and major pipelines across the Gulf Coast, threatening spot shortages across the region and the likelihood of new spikes in gas prices nationwide.
“Officials at every level of government are preparing for the worst,” a grim-faced President Bush said during brief remarks at the Pentagon. Bush planned to fly toward the storm zone today to review the last-minute preparations of his beleaguered federal emergency team.
Across Texas and Louisiana, federal and military emergency officials pulled back thousands of troops to secure staging areas, and stocked up truckloads of ice, water, food and medical supplies.
Hospitals and nursing homes in storm surge zones from Houston to Galveston emptied. Hundreds of immobilized patients were airlifted out by helicopters that filled the skies as the coastal horizon darkened with slate-colored clouds.
Despite assurances from top government officials that they were now better equipped and prepared than they were during the chaotic, sluggish run-up to Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, authorities were confounded Thursday by Hurricane Rita’s threat and by the crushing logistical burdens created by the mass retreat of hundreds of thousands of scared, confused evacuees.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry asked for 10,000 federal troops to add to 5,000 National Guard members already mobilized. And Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said she had requested 15,000 active-duty troops to bolster 25,000 soldiers stationed in New Orleans and other areas ravaged three weeks ago by Hurricane Katrina.
But Thursday night, it remained unclear when those troops would arrive and whether they would arrive at all in those numbers before the storm struck. Officials at the Pentagon and U.S. Northern Command said military staff had spent much of the day trying to determine exactly what forces would be needed.
“We are working closely with FEMA to determine the capabilities that are required in the state,” said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush had advised Perry during a morning phone call that such troops might not be needed.
“The president told the governor the USS Iwo Jima and other ships were following the storm in and talked to him about the search-and-rescue teams the Coast Guard has pre-positioned,” McClellan said. “The governor said that he felt that would be sufficient for needs at this time.”
A spokesman for Perry did not return a phone call seeking comment late Thursday.
Officials in Texas struggled for much of the day with traffic jams, some stretching as long as 70 miles, that quickly overwhelmed highways and drained fuel reserves from hundreds of east Texas gas stations. The tie-ups were caused by overlapping evacuation orders issued throughout the day by cities and towns along 200 miles of coastline.
After making 14 desperate stops on the agonizing drive from Houston to Austin, Joseph Keneles, 52, finally found fuel at the Quix Gas and Convenience store near Austin. He bought 3 cans’ worth, enough for 2 1/2 gallons, but Keneles knew he needed more.
“Hoard as much fuel as we can,” he said, unapologetically.
In Houston, officials trying to use a “contraflow” plan for fleeing motorists on Interstate 45 were unable to open the major artery’s southbound lanes to northbound drivers until mid-afternoon.
“They’ve been in their cars a long time,” said Houston Mayor Bill White. “I’d be frustrated too.”
The results were apparent in clogged highways stretching from Beaumont and Corpus Christi all the way to Houston. Scores of cars that ran out of gas were strewn for miles along medians and road shoulders. Grim-faced families waited nervously at the highway’s edge, praying for emergency refills from state fuel trucks sent into the area -- and fearing they would get caught in Rita’s path.
Still, officials in Texas and southwest Louisiana urged those remaining in storm-threatened areas to join the masses heading north.
“If you’re in the storm’s path, you need to get gone,” Perry said. “You need to be on the road, moving out of the storm’s path. Those few hardheaded ones out there who are going to ride this thing out, don’t expect there to be a lot of support in those areas.”
Rita’s threat to follow Katrina’s assault on the Gulf Coast resembled a pair of Category 4 hurricanes that stormed through the same region in 1915. The unnamed storms landed in a powerful one-two punch, first tearing through New Orleans and then overwhelming Galveston, killing 550 people combined.
Although Galveston remains imperiled, ground zero looked increasingly like Beaumont, an oil city of 114,000 and home of the famous “Spindletop” oilfield, which erupted in 1901 and helped create the modern petroleum industry. By late Thursday, the town was shut down and largely abandoned, except for freeways clotted with unlucky pilgrims who had run out of gas.
Interstate 10 was at a standstill for 40 miles to the east, almost all the way to Lake Charles, La. Every other route out of town was jammed, too, officials said.
Among the few who stayed were several exhausted New Orleans evacuees who had simply given up, retreating to any hotel rooms they could find.
“I’m just tired of running, man,” said Dejuan Gibson, one of the New Orleans evacuees. “At this point, I figure that I survived one storm, I can survive another.”
As temperatures soared to 100 degrees and gas tanks ran so low that many people turned off their air conditioners, the roads descended into chaos.
Some gas stations put a $10-per-customer limit, which paid for less than four gallons, prompting angry exchanges between residents and gas station clerks.
A band of frustrated evacuees started driving the wrong way on Highway 105, though authorities had not reversed any of the lanes to increase flow.
In Orange, one man tried to skip past other cars by driving in the median, starting an argument that drew several gesturing men out of their cars.
“It’s a little tense out there,” said Cindy Voight, 41, who was trying to evacuate from her hometown of Groves, Texas, with a two-vehicle caravan of “five adults, one kid, one cat and four dogs.”
Farther east, southwest Louisiana’s swamp-rooted bayou country was also in Rita’s sights.
Near Lake Charles, about 10,000 residents of Cameron Parish were packing up within hours of the first calls for evacuation.
And in Calcasieu Parish to the north, tens of thousands among the area’s 187,000 residents were told to abandon bayou areas and mobile homes.
Many older residents recalled the 1957 rampage of Hurricane Audrey, a Category 4 storm that flattened the region with 130-mph winds, killing 425 people, including 150 children, in Cameron Parish. Both parishes hug the coast, about 30 miles east of Texas, surrounded by marshes and sand dunes.
“We’ve already moved out a lot of people, and we’ll go door to door tomorrow to get anybody who’s still around,” said Richard Gremillion, Calcasieu’s emergency preparedness director.
In New Orleans, Mayor C. Ray Nagin said he was concerned about Rita’s slight curve toward the northeast and what he described as the 50% to 60% chance that the city could receive tropical storm winds of up to 60 mph.
“What I see worries me,” Nagin said. “Maybe I’m a little paranoid now.”
Speaking outside a downtown office building as a rising wind whipped rain and sand through the air, Nagin said federal forces would remain in the city to support local recovery efforts and be stationed throughout New Orleans and the surrounding parishes.
About 3,000 soldiers from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, along with 2,000 National Guard troops from Oklahoma, will work with the local police force, said Maj. Gen. Ron Mason of the Army’s 35th Division.
The Army Corps of Engineers hoped massive steel barriers propped against two weakened levees will prevent a new round of devastating floods. “We’re not as concerned about the rain as we are about that tidal surge,” said Susan Jackson, a New Orleans-based spokeswoman for the corps. “We don’t know how fragile those levees really are.”
Public safety officials and weather forecasters struggled to construct instant models of Rita’s devastating potential, juggling variables that were still uncertain. The storm’s path was still a guess at best and its strength fluctuated, though still destructively potent.
Hugh Willoughby, former director of the Hurricane Research Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that even in the best possible case, Rita seemed certain to cause enormous property losses.
“You can’t really get by with a serious landfall that hits developed coastline without doing a few billion dollars in damage,” said Willoughby, professor and senior scientist at the International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University in Miami.
The worst-case scenario was one of devastation, and accompanying loss of life, along the U.S. Gulf Coast, he said. “We could have a situation where the empty city of Galveston is wiped off the map, the way it was in 1900,” he said, adding, “You’d have to completely run out of luck for that to happen.”
Gold reported from Beaumont, Gaouette from New Orleans and Braun from Washington. Times staff writers P.J. Huffstutter in Austin, Maria L. La Ganga in Houston, Paul Pringle in New Orleans, Mai Tran in Baton Rouge, La., Mark Mazetti and Ricardo-Alonso Zaldivar in Washington, and Times researchers Lianne Hart in Houston and Lynn Marshall in Seattle contributed to this report.
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The factors feeding, impeding Rita
Hurricane Rita is expected to track to the northwest as a high pressure system moves out of the storm’s projected path. It may regain intensity as it again crosses the Loop Current, a section of the Gulf Stream that carries warmer water from the Caribbean to the central Gulf of Mexico.
- Rita passes over warm Loop Current waters, strengthens to Category 5 hurricane.
- Rita goes through an eye-wall replacement cycle (see below), weakens to Category 4.
- Forecasters expect Rita to pass again over the warm Loop Current, may regain strength.
- Weakening over cooler waters, forecasters predict landfall as a minimum Category 3 hurricane.
In powerful hurricanes such as Rita, outer bands of storms encircle the primary eye wall, thus forming a second eye wall.
- The secondary eye wall begins to rob the primary eye wall of its energy and the storm’s intensity declines.
- The primary eye wall eventually disintegrates, leaving the outer ring as the new eye wall.
- Because the center of circulation is now broader, the wind speeds decrease.
Over time (usually several hours), the new eye wall may contract, shrinking the eye again and causing wind speeds to increase. At the end of a full regeneration cycle, hurricanes are often significantly more powerful.
Sources: NOAA, Accuweather, South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Graphics reporting by Brady MacDonald