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Rita Wobbles, Gulf Coast Staggers

Times Staff Writers

Hurricane Rita, ebbing but still dangerous, approached the nearly deserted coasts of Texas and Louisiana today, preceded by driving rain that reflooded sections of New Orleans and swept through low-lying shoreline towns.

In the early morning hours, a hurricane warning remained in effect from Sargent, Texas, to Morgan City, La. At midnight, the Class 3 hurricane was about 40 miles southeast of Sabine Pass, on the Texas-Louisiana border, with winds of 120 mph.

Little change in strength was expected before landfall, which the National Hurricane Center said would occur around daybreak.

With the eye of the storm about 300 miles from New Orleans, Rita was flinging 70 mph gusts at the city; it swelled the city’s canals by 2 feet. Water again streamed over the Industrial Canal levee and pooled waist-deep in the Lower 9th Ward, one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina nearly a month ago.

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Power failed about 8 p.m. across most of coastal Jefferson County, Texas, as Rita began wobbling ashore. Within two hours, powerful headwinds raked the county and the air thickened with rain.

“We’re going to get through this,” said Texas Gov. Rick Perry. “Be calm, be strong, say a prayer for Texas.”

Authorities said several tornadoes had spun off the front end of the storm, and the wind was so fierce that police and emergency agencies in the area prepared to pull their officers off the streets until this morning.

“We’re all just hunkered down now,” said R.J. Smith, emergency management assistant coordinator for Beaumont, Texas. “We’ve done what we can.”

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By evening, sheets of rain shuddered against buildings all along Sabine Pass and parts of Port Arthur, and palm trees shook like pompoms. The wind droned, a baleful, eerie hum. Churning surf with 17-foot waves hammered the coast. Downtown Beaumont was expected to be submerged by morning.

The traffic jams that overwhelmed highways in Houston and across the state appeared to ease Friday. But hundreds of abandoned cars littered highways from Galveston to Houston as evacuees searched on foot for shelter from the stiffening winds.

In some spots, traffic remained chaotic, even deadly: A bus carrying elderly nursing home evacuees from Houston exploded on a suburban Dallas freeway, killing 24 people. The bus had bogged down in traffic, and sheriff’s officials suspected that sparks from failed brakes may have ignited oxygen canisters being used by passengers with breathing problems.

Emergency officials made last-minute efforts to aid residents unable to evacuate the threatened coastline on their own. Cargo planes airlifted 4,000 hospital and nursing home patients out of the port city of Beaumont and the shell-fishing center of Port Arthur. Houston police patrolled the region’s highways in transit buses, picking up hundreds of evacuees who had run out of gas.

On Friday afternoon, Houston Mayor Bill White urged the city’s remaining residents to stay in their homes and warned evacuees still streaming north to find shelter. “Now’s the time to get inside,” he said. “People should be off the streets as these winds are coming down.”

White had repeatedly said the city would not open shelters as long as it remained in the hurricane’s path. But by Friday morning, with traffic finally beginning to flow after thousands of evacuees spent a difficult night stuck in their cars, the Red Cross began setting up 30 shelters.

When the First Baptist Church on Interstate 10 opened its doors, 90 people registered within an hour. They were not weary motorists, but poor residents grateful for a place to stay.

“We thought we would be in our house during the hurricane,” said Alejandro Vasquez, 33, whose wife gave birth Thursday in a local hospital. “It isn’t safe. I’m glad this church opened. I was very worried. We didn’t have anyplace to go.”

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In its final, daylong passage over the Gulf of Mexico, Rita diminished from a Category 5 hurricane -- the top rating on the intensity scale used by meteorologists -- to a Category 3. But experts warned that Rita’s shrunken state was deceptive, pointing to reports of rising tides and violent surf as evidence that the storm remained coiled with explosive energy.

“It’s still a major hurricane,” said Chris Sisko, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Galveston city officials said late Friday that they had been told by the hurricane center that the core of the storm would come in at High Island, just west of Port Arthur.

“The big swath of damage could run from Cameron, La., to Galveston [and] into Houston,” Sisko said.

The storm was so vast, with hurricane-force winds that extended 85 miles from the eye and tropical-storm-force winds stretching 205 miles, that its approach was felt all along the Texas-Louisiana gulf coastline for nearly half a day before the expected official landfall.

The most danger seemed to be to the Texas oil-refining towns of Port Arthur and Beaumont as well as Lake Charles, La., on the western edge of the state.

“That’s where people are going to die,” Max Mayfield, the hurricane center director, told Associated Press. “All these areas are going to get absolutely clobbered by the storm surge.”

As winds whirled, fire erupted in a vacant downtown Galveston building. Firefighters braved sparks whipped by Rita’s gusts, wielding fire hoses as the flames raged under the steady rain.

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At Southeast Texas Regional Airport, north of Port Arthur and west of the small town of Nederland, U.S. Air Force cargo planes rumbled all day through gathering clouds, ferrying the last of the area’s 4,000 infirm and elderly patients to safety.

Some patients came by the busloads from staging areas in Sabine Pass, Port Arthur and Beaumont. Others arrived in ambulances that shuttled up and down the coast. Many refugees were carried aboard on stretchers and in wheelchairs.

“Some people were on ventilators,” said Port Arthur Fire Capt. Todd Wood. “On a couple of the planes, we basically had to set up an intensive care unit.”

Wood said he feared the hamlet of Sabine Pass could be wiped from the map: “I expect to come home to complete devastation.”

Port Arthur too will be left an island, predicted Police Officer Rocky Bridges. The city -- population 58,000 as of two days ago -- is surrounded by water, including Sabine Lake to the south and the Neches River to the east. “We just hope to come back to a town,” Bridges said.

In New Orleans, 240 miles to the east, officials had hoped that a Texas landfall might spare their repaired levees and newly dried city streets. But Rita played no favorites. After hours of rainfall, a levee was breached just after 10 a.m. by torrents running from the Industrial Canal.

“We can’t get access” to the canal, said Dan Hitchings, a spokesman for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The storm’s advance winds were snapping at 40 mph, too strong to allow helicopters to fly up with heavy sandbag loads. “Looking back,” Hitchings said ruefully, “we should have put another foot on it.”

Louisiana state and local authorities reacted with dismay. “The storm surge will be high,” warned Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. “We’ve already seen what the edges of this storm are doing to New Orleans.”

In the flat coastal towns of southwestern Louisiana, where entire parishes were abandoned a day ago by Acadian residents unnerved by Katrina’s devastation, rising tides began pooling in the flat landscape’s bayous and marshes.

By noon, 2 feet of gulf water swirled through the streets of Cameron, a mile and a half inland from the gulf. There was only one man left in the town, and he stayed just long enough to glance at the depressing scenery under slanting rain before driving off in his truck.

After directing a daylong evacuation of Cameron Parish’s 10,000 residents, emergency preparedness director Freddy Richard drove off, the last man out. “I feel bad that no one’s left to watch over the town, but it’s just not safe to be here,” he shouted over a cellphone.

Houston, 50 miles from the Texas coast, seemed almost placid by comparison. By dawn Friday, traffic began to thin out after a long night of gridlock. But the sky overhead was an unnatural gray, and police and emergency officials scurried to batten down the city before the clouds opened.

“Hurricane Rita is dangerous, and Houston is well-prepared,” Mayor White said, adding that local government had been “mobilizing for days and days.” Not only are the region’s resources at the ready, he said, but “a lot of resources have come from the outside.”

Still, police were driving transit buses over the area’s highways, searching for evacuees stranded during the massive tie-ups that resulted after White and mayors across southeast Texas ordered overlapping mandatory evacuations. The city’s gas stations were bled dry, and thousands of evacuees had left their cars, trying to find safe ground on foot.

At midday Friday, White warned there would be one more sweep -- and that would be it. Transit police had made contact with 250 people, but only 11 wanted to be evacuated, said Chief Tom Lambert of the Metropolitan Police Department.

Tom Costello, a Federal Emergency Management Agency official in Houston, said FEMA was taking Rita seriously and had 4,000 workers in place throughout the state. Ice, water, meals, tarps and generators were ready, he said, along with 14 search-and-rescue teams.

But a request made by Gov. Perry on Thursday for 10,000 new, pre-positioned federal troops -- and a similar plea by Blanco for 15,000 troops -- appeared to have been shunted aside for the moment.

Pentagon officials said Friday that they had received the requests but that the actual number of active-duty troops dispatched probably would be much smaller -- and they would not arrive before the hurricane struck.

Blanco had made her request, Defense Department officials said, when the governor believed that most of the active-duty ground troops in Louisiana for the Hurricane Katrina mission were about to be redeployed to Texas. Instead, Pentagon officials said, those troops would remain in Louisiana to participate in rescue efforts.

“The conditions that prompted the request” for forces had changed, one senior Defense official said. A spokesperson for Blanco said she was “on the same page.”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Thursday that President Bush had convinced Perry in a telephone conversation that Texas would not need the 10,000 new troops because there enough units were stationed nearby.

In the weeks since his administration was lambasted for a sluggish response to Katrina, Bush and other federal officials have had to tread carefully between repeated photo ops in the region and aiding the dispossessed.

On Friday, Bush skipped a visit with emergency responders in San Antonio, insisting to reporters that there was no risk of him “getting in the way.”

But coverage of the president’s plans was edged off Texas newscasts by the grim drama of the Dallas-bound bus that exploded Friday morning. Jammed with elderly patients of the Brighton Gardens nursing home in the Houston suburb of Bellaire, the bus had stalled in traffic, then burst into flames.

Sgt. Don Peritz, a spokesman for the Dallas Sheriff’s Department, said that 24 evacuees died in the fire and explosion in Wilmer, just outside of Dallas. At least 38 people on the bus were patients, mostly in their 80s and 90s. Peritz would not say whether staff members survived. But the bus driver lived and helped rescue some passengers from the blazing bus.

Through the rest of the day, Houston and state officials wrestled with the fallout from evacuation plans that seemed streamlined on paper but collapsed into gridlock before Rita’s arrival.

Perry said Friday that the decision to order the one-way “contraflow” on three major Houston highways came after the storm changed course, heading toward Houston instead of south of the city. “It’s not perfect,” he said. “I wish I could wave a magic wand and somehow transport people magically from Houston.”

The result was that even Friday, road-weary evacuees were still in their cars or trudging on unfamiliar streets in search of shelter.

In Hempstead, Police Chief Glenn Smith said officials had expected their town would be a brief stopping point for evacuees fleeing from Houston to Austin. But the town opened up a shelter at the local high school after 250 stranded evacuees began wandering through town.

“Literally, we have people camping on the side of the road, and we can’t have that -- not with a storm coming,” the chief said. By 11 p.m., Hempstead police were planning to canvass the town as well as Highway 290.

On 290, 100 abandoned cars littered the roadside from Highway 610 to Hempstead. Inside a Silver Nissan Altima there was a package of AA batteries and an open Bible.

Gold reported from Sabine Pass and Hart and Huffstutter from Houston. Times staff writers Maria L. La Ganga in Houston, Mai Tran in Baton Rouge, Paul Pringle in New Orleans, John-Thor Dahlburg in Miami, Ann M. Simmons in Lafayette, La., Elizabeth Mehren in Boston and Stephen Braun and Mark Mazzetti in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.


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