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Thursday, September 22, 2005

Gulf Hurricane of Top Strength Menaces Texas - New York Times

Gulf Hurricane of Top Strength Menaces Texas - New York TimesSeptember 22, 2005
Gulf Hurricane of Top Strength Menaces Texas
By SIMON ROMERO

GALVESTON, Tex., Sept. 21 - Hurricane Rita attained the strongest storm designation on Wednesday as it barreled toward the Texas coastline, forcing the evacuation of as many as a million people from this island city and other Gulf Coast communities along an arc from Corpus Christi to New Orleans.

Heeding the lessons of Hurricane Katrina, the authorities in Galveston ordered all residents to leave the city immediately and tried to evacuate the city's hospitals and nursing homes with buses, ambulances and helicopters. Businesses and public buildings covered windows with plywood, and the Strand, the central business district, was virtually empty by Wednesday afternoon.

"Coastal Texans should not wait until late Thursday or early Friday to leave," Gov. Rick Perry said. "Homes and businesses can be rebuilt. Lives cannot."

Over little more than 24 hours, Hurricane Rita strengthened into a Category 5 storm as it cleared the Florida Keys and passed over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The National Hurricane Center said Hurricane Rita had winds near 175 miles per hour, putting it at the highest measurable level.

Hurricane Katrina had briefly reached Category 5 strength as it approached the Gulf Coast, but it weakened a notch before slamming into Louisiana and Mississippi on Aug. 29. The death toll from that storm passed the 1,000 mark on Wednesday. [Page A28.]

Forecasters say Hurricane Rita will pass over cooler waters on Thursday and Friday, potentially weakening it to a Category 4 storm before it makes landfall, which is predicted early Saturday north of Matagorda Bay. Winds of 130 m.p.h. in parts of Texas should be expected, said Bob Rose, a meteorologist with the Lower Colorado River Authority in Texas.

"This is going to be one very nasty, mean hurricane when it strikes land," Mr. Rose said.

The approaching storm provoked fear in Houston and along a broad swath of the Texas coast, where a nuclear plant and huge petrochemical refineries pose special hazards. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced that operators of the nuclear plant the South Texas Project in Bay City, a few miles from Matagorda Bay, were working to shut down both of its reactors.

Officials of the state's environmental agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said Wednesday that they were receiving numerous reports from plant operators along the length of the coast that they were shutting down their industrial processes or minimizing operations as a precaution.

"In the wake of Katrina, people are being more vigilant and more conservative in their approach," especially in light of that hurricane's economic and environmental impacts resulting from damage at similar facilities in Louisiana, said David Bower, the assistant director for field operations of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Mr. Bower described the shutdowns and other actions as "absolutely comprehensive" at locations along the Texas coast.

The possibility of the storm hitting anywhere on the Texas coastline drove oil prices higher on concern that the storm might shut down refineries or tear apart pipelines. Companies evacuated workers from at least three refineries around Houston, which has the nation's highest concentration of refining capacity. Oil prices climbed 60 cents, or 1 percent, to $66.80 a barrel.

In Washington, where President Bush declared a state of emergency in Texas and Louisiana, officials tried to show that they were prepared for Hurricane Rita after the government's missteps in responding to Hurricane Katrina.

"I urge the citizens to listen carefully to the instructions provided by state and local authorities and follow them," President Bush said in a speech Wednesday to the Republican Jewish Coalition. "We hope and pray that Hurricane Rita will not be a devastating storm, but we got to be ready for the worst."

Many of the 13,000 active-duty troops in Louisiana, Mississippi and off the Gulf Coast, including marines and elements of the 82nd Airborne Division, were on standby Wednesday, to deploy to Texas if state officials there requested federal military assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita, officials at the Pentagon said.

Ten Navy ships, including the hospital ship Comfort, have moved to the northeastern part of the gulf to avoid the storm, but would be ready to steam in quickly behind the hurricane to offer relief. Twenty helicopters at Fort Hood, Tex., have also been placed on standby in case they are needed for search and rescue, transport or Medivac missions in support of FEMA, said Michael Kucharek, a spokesman for the Northern Command.

About 25,000 members of the National Guard are on duty in Louisiana and 10,500 in Mississippi. According to the National Guard Bureau, nearly 2,000 National Guards troops are on state-active duty preparing for Hurricane Rita, and Governor Perry has authorized the activation of up to 5,000 of the more than 10,000 National Guard troops currently available in the state. The Air National Guard has also moved several of its aircraft to Austin from Houston as a precaution.

The American Red Cross was moving supplies and equipment into staging areas in Dallas and San Antonio and opening shelters according to Texas's disaster preparedness plans. Its Disaster Operations Center in Washington was a beehive of activity, as its staff and volunteers mustered supplies, vehicles and other necessities.

In Florida, Hurricane Rita caused no major structural damage in Key West, but some flooding was reported. About 7,000 customers in the Florida Keys lost power and crews were working to restore it by the end of the day Wednesday. Residents who evacuated Key West were being allowed back Wednesday, while tourists were scheduled to return Friday.

Meanwhile in New Orleans, Mayor C. Ray Nagin had a mandatory evacuation order in effect Wednesday for the most of the city, including the French Quarter, the central business district and Uptown. But on Wednesday, the city remained filled with contractors, cleaners and military personnel driving down streets without working traffic lights.

The mayor said Tuesday that as many as 500 buses were ready to evacuate the few thousand citizens who may remain. About two dozen people who were evacuating because of Hurricane Rita arrived Wednesday at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where tens of thousands of people were stranded for days after Hurricane Katrina.

On Wednesday, each person was welcomed by six military troops who offered water and ready-to-eat meals. Then they were checked for weapons, asked whether they needed medical assistance and put on a bus, idling with air-conditioning and television until it was full enough to depart, either to Baton Rouge or elsewhere. Several people said they were evacuating for a second time, some after returning to find their homes damaged and without power.

Still, after days of worry that Hurricane Rita would strike New Orleans, there was some sense of relief that it was heading west, reducing the potential damage to the city.

"We're watching Rita," said Sally Forman, a spokeswoman for the mayor. "We don't have a huge population in our city, but I think that the mandatory evacuation is working."

While New Orleans braced for the possibility more disruption, communities in Texas were also on edge Wednesday. South of Galveston in Matagorda County, Sheriff James Mitchell said that his office would not respond to calls in evacuated areas and that parents would be subject to criminal charges for endangerment of a child if they did not remove their children from the path of the storm.

Longtime residents in Houston remembered the ravages of the last hurricane to strike the city, Hurricane Alicia, in August 1983. Although barely a Category 3 storm, it was responsible for six deaths and devastated the downtown skyline with 80 m.p.h. winds, shattering hundreds of windows and leaving the streets ankle-deep in glass.

Throughout Wednesday, emergency measures were widely and hurriedly put into effect in Houston and along the coast. Schools, colleges, museums and other public institutions announced shutdowns starting Thursday. Prison inmates, hospital patients, nursing home residents and other vulnerable populations were evacuated from low-lying areas, and stores were stripped of bottled water, batteries and other emergency supplies. Long lines formed at banks, some of which restricted withdrawals to $500 at a time.

Galveston was perhaps more nervous than any other city, having just marked the 105th anniversary of the great storm of 1900, which killed more than 6,000 residents and remains the deadliest natural disaster in the nation's history. Although Galveston largely rebuilt itself and raised the elevation of parts of the island, the storm contributed to the city's decline from a bustling center for shipping and finance to a somewhat sleepy tourist destination.

"This one could be bigger than 1900, which was just a Category 3," said Tom Weaver, 60, as workers boarded windows of his business, Scratch and Dent Furniture. "If it hits us, mark my words, there will be looting. There's two types of people in this world, those that work and those that steal from those that work."

Most of Galveston was eerily empty by early Wednesday evening, with even a team of nine officials from the Federal Emergency Management Administration leaving the city. The FEMA officials, who had been assisting evacuees from Louisiana, said they had been ordered by their managers to leave Galveston.

At the University of Texas Medical Branch, a complex consisting of six hospitals, 320 of its 370 patients had been evacuated by early Wednesday evening, Marsha Canright, a spokeswoman, said. The state corrections department Wednesday also evacuated another 70 inmates from the medical center's prison hospital, Ms. Canright said. She said it was the first time in the hospital's 114-year history that it had been evacuated.

In a span of four hours Wednesday morning, the 175 residents of Edgewater Retirement Community, which sits along the city's seawall, were evacuated on chartered buses and ambulances, said Barbara Williams, the residence's assistant administrator.

"This is not something that is a reactionary thing to Katrina," Ms. Williams said. "We just simply have always had a plan for evacuation for a hurricane."

Some people in Galveston said they had no idea when they might be able to return to the city, which has 60,000 residents. Saúl Aucancela, the owner of a market selling products from Mexico, said he was planning to drive to Reynosa, a border city in northern Mexico some eight hours to the south, to escape the storm.

"I'm placing my fate in God's hands," Mr. Aucancela, 55, said in Spanish as he finished nailing plywood on the wall of his store to protect his windows. His 18 employees had already left Galveston for refuge inland. "I want to go to a place that isn't too expensive if I have to stay there a while," he said.

Reporting for this article was contributed by Ralph Blumenthal and Maureen Balleza in Houston, Thayer Evans in Galveston, William Yardley in New Orleans, Andrew C. Revkin in New York, Eric Schmitt in Washington, and Terry Aguayo in Miami.

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