By PAM EASTON, Associated Press Writer
It is already rated category 5, as of Wednesday afternoon.
Gaining strength with frightening speed, Hurricane Rita swirled toward
the Gulf Coast a Category 5, 175-mph monster Wednesday as more than
1.3 million people in Texas and Louisiana were sent packing on orders
from authorities who learned a bitter lesson from Katrina.
"It's scary. It's really scary," Shalonda Dunn said as she and her 5-
and 9-year-old daughters waited to board a bus arranged by emergency
authorities in Galveston. "I'm glad we've got the opportunity to
leave. ... You never know what can happen."
With Rita projected to hit Texas by Saturday, Gov. Rick Perry urged
residents along the state's entire coast to begin evacuating. And New
Orleans braced for the possibility that the storm could swamp the
misery-stricken city all over again. "We do not want a repeat of the
events of Louisiana here in Texas," the Governor noted. New Orleans
Mayor Nagin noted bitterly, "I guess we get off lucky this time with
'only' five or six inches of rain to further harass the levees."
Galveston, low-lying parts of Corpus Christi and Houston, and mostly
emptied-out New Orleans were under mandatory evacuation orders as Rita
sideswiped the Florida Keys and began drawing energy with terrifying
efficiency from the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Forecasters said Rita could be the most intense hurricane on record
ever to hit Texas, and easily one of the most powerful ever to plow
into the U.S. mainland. Category 5 is the highest on the scale, and
only three Category 5 hurricanes are known to have hit the
U.S. mainland -- most recently, Andrew, which smashed South Florida in
1992, and of course Katrina a couple weeks ago.
The U.S. mainland has never been hit by both a Category 4 and a
Category 5 in the same season. Katrina, at one point became a Category
5 storm, weakened slightly to a Category 4 hurricane just before
Government officials eager to show they had learned their lessons from
the sluggish response to Katrina sent in hundreds of buses to evacuate
the poor, moved out hospital and nursing home patients, dispatched
truckloads of water, ice and ready-made meals, and put rescue and
medical teams on standby. An Army general in Texas was told to be
ready to assume control of a military task force in Rita's wake.
"We hope and pray that Hurricane Rita will not be a devastating storm,
but we got to be ready for the worst," President Bush said in
Late Wednesday, Rita was centered about 570 miles east-southeast of
Galveston and was moving west near 9 mph. Forecasters predicted it
would come ashore along the central Texas coast between Galveston and
Corpus Christi. Hurricane-force winds extended up to 70 miles from the
center of the storm.
But with its breathtaking size -- tropical storm-force winds extending
370 miles across -- practically the entire western end of the
U.S. Gulf Coast was in peril, and even a slight rightward turn could
prove devastating to the fractured levees protecting New Orleans.
In the Galveston-Houston-Corpus Christi area, about 1.3 million people
were under orders to get out, in addition to 20,000 or more along with
the Louisiana coast. Special attention was given to hospitals and
nursing homes, three weeks after scores of sick and elderly patients
in the New Orleans area drowned in Katrina's floodwaters or died in
the stifling heat while waiting to be rescued.
Military personnel in South Texas started moving north, too. Schools,
businesses and universities were also shut down. Some sporting events
Galveston was a virtual ghost town by mid-afternoon Wednesday. In
neighborhoods throughout the island city, the few people left were
packing the last of their valuables and getting ready to head north.
Helicopters, ambulances and buses were used to evacuate 200 patients
from Galveston's only hospital. And at the Edgewater Retirement
Community, a six-story building near the city's seawall, 200 elderly
residents were not given a choice.
"They either go with a family member or they go with us, but this
building is not safe sitting on the seawall with a major hurricane
coming," said David Hastings, executive director. "I have had several
say, `I don't want to go,' and I said, `I'm sorry, you're going.'"
Galveston, a city of 58,000 on a coastal island 8 feet above sea
level, was the site of one of the deadliest natural disasters in
U.S. history: an unnamed hurricane in 1900 that killed between 6,000
and 12,000 people and practically wiped the city off the map.
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.
In Houston, the state's largest city and home to the highest
concentration of Katrina refugees, the area's geography makes
evacuation particularly tricky. While many hurricane-prone cities are
right on the coast, Houston is 60 miles inland, so a coastal suburban
area of 2 million people must evacuate through a metropolitan area of
4 million people where the freeways are often clogged under the best
Mayor Bill White urged residents to look out for more than themselves.
"There will not be enough government vehicles to go and evacuate
everybody in every area," he said. "We need neighbor caring for
neighbor, and remember, our Louisiana visitors; this will be their
second evacuation in as many weeks; try to be kind to them also."
Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt issued a stern warning to anyone
staying behind that looting would not be tolerated and anyone caught
stealing after the storm would be prosecuted. "One of the first things
we will do, when we get back into town is get the jails open and ready
to accomodate looters and other lawbreakers."
At the Galveston Community Center, where 1,500 evacuees had been put
on school buses to points inland, another lesson from Katrina was put
into practice: To overcome the reluctance of people to evacuate
without their pets, they were allowed to bring them along in crates.
"It was quite a sight," Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said. "We were able to
put people on with their dog crates, their cat crates, their shopping
carts. It went very well. Busses are making two or three trips as
needed, this time let the 'Katrina people' have decent seats and room
for their pets, etc."
But Thomas warned late Wednesday that the city was nearly out of
buses. She said those left on the island would have to find a way off
or face riding out a storm that is "big enough to destroy part of the
island, if not a great part of the county."
City Manager Steve LeBlanc said the storm surge could reach 50 feet.
Galveston is protected by a seawall that is only 17 feet tall. More
than 180 police officers were expected to stay behind to guard the
city, along with 117 firefighters.
Rita approached as the death toll from Katrina passed the 1,000 mark --
to 1,036 -- in five Gulf Coast states. The body count in Louisiana
alone was put at 799, most found in the receding floodwaters of New
The Army Corps of Engineers raced to fortify the city's patched-up
levees for fear the additional rain could swamp the walls and flood
the city all over again. The Corps said New Orleans' levees can only
handle up to 6 inches of rain and a storm surge of 10 to 12 feet. One
Corps supervisor echoed Mayor Nagin's earlier comments, "we may get
lucky and 'only' get six to eight inches of water this time, and not
an actual hurricane." He noted that his workers would continue doing
'temporary' repairs as long as it was safe for them to continue.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin estimated only 400 to 500 people remained
in the vulnerable east bank areas of the city. They, too, were ordered
to evacuate. But only a few people lined up for the evacuation buses
provided. Most of the people still in the city were believed to have
their own cars.
"I don't think I can stay for another storm," said Keith Price, a
nurse at New Orleans' University Hospital who stayed through Katrina
and had to wade to safety through chest-deep water. "Until you are
actually in that water, you really don't know how frightening it is."
Rita also forced some Katrina refugees to flee a hurricane for the
second time in 3 1/2 weeks. More than 1,000 refugees who had been
living in the civic center in Lake Charles, near the Texas state line,
were being bused to shelters farther north.
"We all have to go along with the system right now, until things get
better," said Ralph Russell of the New Orleans suburb of Harvey. "I
just hope it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing."
Crude oil prices rose again on fears that Rita would smash into key
oil installations in Texas and the gulf. Hundreds of workers were
evacuated from offshore oil rigs. Texas, the heart of U.S. crude
production, accounts for 25 percent of the nation's total oil output.
Rita is the 17th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, making
this the fourth-busiest season since record-keeping started in
1851. The record is 21 tropical storms in 1933. The hurricane season
ends Nov. 30, and one or two more hurricanes may still strike the
area before then.
Associated Press Writers Lynn Brezosky in Corpus Christi, Alicia Caldwell in
Galveston and Juan A. Lozano in Houston contributed to this report.
On the Net:
National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.
NOTE: For more telecom/internet/networking/computer news from the
daily media, check out our feature 'Telecom Digest Extra' each day at
http://telecom-digest.org/td-extra/more-news.html . Hundreds of new