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Saturday, September 24, 2005

Hurricane Lashes Texas and Louisiana Coastlines - New York Times

Hurricane Lashes Texas and Louisiana Coastlines - New York TimesSeptember 24, 2005
Hurricane Lashes Texas and Louisiana Coastlines
By SIMON ROMERO
and JERE LONGMAN

BEAUMONT, Tex., Sept. 24 - Hurricane Rita made landfall this morning near the Texas-Louisiana border, raking the region with up to 120-mile-per-hour winds, dumping more than two feet of rain and sending 20-foot storm surges crashing onto coastal areas.

Officials at the National Hurricane Center said that Rita officially made landfall about 3:40 a.m. EST with the storm's eye hitting just east of Sabine Pass, Tex., about 32 miles southeast of Beaumont.

As the eye of the storm came ashore, the winds blew out windows at the hurricane command center here, ripped up trees and brought down power lines, leaving at least 250,000 customers without power. The storm was blamed for at least three fires in Beaumont - one in the north end of town and two in the port area.

Officials said that they would make a full assessment of the storm damage at daylight.

Rita blew through the region with sustained winds of 85 m.p.h., with gusts topping 100 m.p.h. As it approached, the storm prompted a mass evacuation in Texas, breached levees in New Orleans and sparked fires in Galveston. The storm is already blamed for the deaths of 24 elderly passengers who died early Friday in a bus fire accident near Dallas as they tried to flee to safety.

Rita, once a catastrophic Category 5 with top wind speeds of 175 m.p.h., weakened to a Category 3, with winds at 120 m.p.h. as it neared landfall. But officials warned that it was still a dangerous storm and was still capable of widespread destruction. By 7 a.m. the hurricane had weakened to Category 2 as it continued to move inland.

As of 6 a.m. this morning, the center of the hurricane was located 25 miles northwest of the city of Orange, near Buna, Tex., in southern Jasper County. Rita was moving northwest near 12 miles per hour with maximum sustained winds near 100 m.p.h. and higher gusts. The core of the hurricane was expected to move inland near the cities of Lufkin and Nacogdoches this afternoon.

Residents who had not evacuated were warned by the National Hurricane Center to remain in place until Rita moves farther inland, because travel, especially in cars, will be dangerous. Forecasters also warned that the greatest damage could come from an unrelenting rainfall that could hang over the region for days and from flood tides of up to 15 feet high that could inundate stretches of the Gulf Coast across Texas and Louisiana.

Rainfall will continue to affect mainly the eastern half of southeast Texas this morning, with the heaviest rains pounding Liberty and Chambers counties, where forecasters said flooding of low-lying areas was expected.

Early this morning, water levels were receding in the upper and middle portions of Galveston Bay as strong winds were pushing the water southward, causing it to pile up across bayside locations of Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula. Forecasters said the flooding further west along Galveston Island, along the north facing bay shores, was expected to subside by midday.

In Galveston late Friday night, firefighters were called out to battle a fire that burned at least three buildings on the edge of the downtown district. Despite winds of 60 to 70 m.p.h. that fanned the flames and set off showers of sparks, firefighters were able to contain the blaze. The immediate cause of the fire was not known.

Earlier on Friday, a storm surge of seven feet pushed water from Lake Pontchartrain through the Industrial Canal and over a repaired levee into New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, one of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods, which had been devastated nearly a month earlier by Hurricane Katrina and submerged under as much as 20 feet of water.

The damage in New Orleans heightened fears over Hurricane Rita, which forced a chaotic exodus of more than two million residents from the Gulf Coast this week.

For a while, as Rita churned across the Gulf of Mexico, it appeared that the storm would make a direct hit on Galveston. But the city was spared. Instead, an area that includes Beaumont and Port Arthur, two cities with large oil and chemical complexes, bore the brunt of the storm.

The death toll began hours before Rita reached land. A bus carrying 38 nursing home residents and six employees from the Houston area caught fire and exploded on Friday morning on a highway just south of Dallas, killing at least 24 passengers in the bus, said Don Peritz, a spokesman for the Dallas County Sheriff's Department.

The storm also prompted preparations far from the region. Georgia announced that it would close all public schools on Monday and Tuesday to conserve fuel and to help avoid the lines for gasoline that grew after Hurricane Katrina.

Energy markets, frantic with the possibility that Hurricane Rita might wreak havoc on refineries and petrochemical plants, were relieved somewhat at the close of trading on Friday when it appeared that the storm might veer from the largest complexes along the Gulf Coast. Oil prices fell $2.31 to $64.19 a barrel.

In Washington, where the Bush administration had been criticized for its slow response to Hurricane Katrina, the president visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Friday. But he canceled a planned trip to Texas to avoid interfering with emergency preparations. He monitored the storm from the United States Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"We're now facing another big storm," Mr. Bush said while at FEMA headquarters on Friday. "Our job is to prepare for and assist state and local people to save lives and help these people get back on their feet."

Federal officials declared a public health emergency for Texas and Louisiana. By evening, it had become clear that the cities along the border of Texas and Louisiana were in the storm's direct path. Entire communities were evacuated, and residents found refuge in shelters.

Port Arthur, normally a town of 60,000 protected by a seawall built to sustain a 16-foot storm surge, was vacant but for a few who refused to leave. Lake Charles, La., a city of about 72,000 just east of the Texas line, was also effectively empty, from the casino boats floating at the docks downtown to the rooms at Lake Charles Memorial Hospital, which evacuated 132 patients on Friday, most on planes departing from the former Chennault Air Force Base.

And in San Augustine Park, 90 miles north of Beaumont, hundreds of people from southeast Texas set up camp in recreational vehicles and tents in the densely forested park run by the Army Corps of Engineers despite warnings of tornadoes, falling trees and rising lake waters. "There aren't any hotels, and we couldn't get gas to go any farther north," said one camper, Dennis Cargill of Orangefield.

In New Orleans, water also topped a levee on the other side of the Industrial Canal, inundating the Upper Ninth Ward, an industrial and residential area where homes were already marked with the stains of Hurricane Katrina. But officials said no additional loss of life or property was expected in these areas, previously pumped dry, that had been abandoned since the earlier storm.

"This is very dramatic, but I don't consider it an emergency situation," said Stephen Browning, a programs director for the Corps of Engineers, as he inspected the breeches from atop a nearby bridge.

Still, the repeat flooding was disheartening for evacuated residents and for some local and state officials, dramatically pointing to the need to shore up the city's levee system in the rebuilding process.

"We have to think about building a safe New Orleans," Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said at a news conference in Baton Rouge. "Our plans include building stronger and higher levees to protect all of the city's neighborhoods."

By noon Friday, water had nearly reached the window level of some homes in the Lower Ninth Ward as far as three blocks from the topped levee between Claiborne and Florida Avenues.

Early gusts from Hurricane Rita brought winds of 25 m.p.h. to 35 m.p.h. to New Orleans through Friday afternoon. Rain fell intermittently. Sometimes it drizzled; other times it blew sideways in stinging blasts.

The Army Corps of Engineers said that levee repairs at the 17th Street Canal and the London Avenue Canal were holding and were expected to provide protection against storm surges as high as 10 to 12 feet. Metal pilings, rocks and sandbags were used to temporarily seal breaches made by Hurricane Katrina.

But, some seepage was expected, the corps said, and in the Gentilly and Mirabeau Gardens sections along the London Avenue Canal, water could be seen rising to the tops of tires of cars on some streets. Officials in St. Bernard Parish said it might take two weeks to pump out all the new water.

In Texas, fuel shortages and the closing of airports in Houston added to problems for residents trying to flee from the storm. The Texas National Guard sent 5,000 trucks with gasoline to supply stranded vehicles along the highways leading out of Houston, Beaumont, Port Arthur and Galveston.

Coast Guard helicopters also transported fuel to 11 locations of the Texas Department of Transportation to assist in refueling the gasoline trucks. In Houston, commercial flights from the city's two main airports ceased operations at noon on Friday, with stranded passengers told to seek refuge in shelters around the city.

As the skies darkened over Houston Friday afternoon, the city grew eerily still, with the normally congested streets and highways empty of traffic.

Although the hurricane looked like it would spare the city a direct hit, Mayor Bill White said at a news briefing, "Winds of 50, 60 miles per hour may be better news than 120 miles per hour, but a lot of glass can be broken."

He warned residents against going close to windows to observe the hurricane because the windows could blow out. "There'll be plenty of time to watch on TV rather than get close to the window," Mr. White said.

In the face of recriminations over the massive traffic tie-ups that clogged escape routes for hundreds of miles into Friday, the mayor said he took pride in the effort that had spirited about 2.5 million people out of harm's way.

"I hate traffic more than anybody I've ever met," Mr. White said, but he defended the turmoil as worthwhile in the end. The ghostly streets were a welcome sight on Friday, he said, "that is exactly what we wanted to see at this time."

By early evening police officers were making their last rounds and looking for any signs of looting. Capt. Dwayne Readdy of the Houston Police Department said, "Right now people are being told to shelter in place." He added, "At this point, everybody is beginning to hunker down, even those with less than honorable intentions."

Throughout the day coastal Texas also frantically tried to ready itself for the storm. In Galveston, with the city emptied of most residents, officials moved emergency response operations to the conference center built atop a bunker that was once part of an old coastal defense installation, Fort Crockett. The conference center, part of the San Luis Resort complex, was thought to be the best location in Galveston to ride out the storm, said Mr. LeBlanc, the city manager.

"I'm an engineer myself and I have confidence this is the sturdiest, safest place to be," Mr. LeBlanc said in an interview.

About 150 police officers, 60 firefighters, 25 public works officials and 25 city administration officials began filing into the conference center early Friday evening as winds began to lash the city.

With dozens of residents still in Galveston despite a mandatory evacuation, Mayor Thomas said the city had set up a refuge for about 100 residents at the Alamo Elementary School. "There are no doctors, no nurses, no triage," Ms. Thomas said. "It's just a refuge, and I would like to make that clear."

Less than a dozen people had shown up at the refuge by late Friday afternoon. Sitting on a cot as he cried, Miguel Rincon said he had terminal colon rectal cancer and less than two years to live. He came to the school with his sister, Angelina Rincon, 63, and a brother, Raul Rincon, 73, who recently suffered from heat stroke.

"I'd rather be walking on the beach, anything instead of just possibly dying in the storm," said Miguel Rincon, 60, a retired road maintenance worker. "I don't want to die."

Mr. Rincon said his roommate took him and his siblings to the school after they heard about the refuge center on television. "This was our last resort," Mr. Rincon said. "We couldn't get off the island. The only car we had didn't have air conditioning. We didn't even have enough gas to get out of here."

In Louisiana, Governor Blanco said in Baton Rouge that at least 90 percent of residents had complied with areas under a mandatory evacuation order, and 98 percent in Cameron Parish, in the southwestern corner of the state.

"Rita remains a very dangerous storm; her winds are strong; the storm surge will be high," Mrs. Blanco said. "We've already seen what the edges of this storm are doing to New Orleans. Rita is driving waters over or through one of the levees damaged by Katrina."

Simon Romero reported from Galveston, Tex., for this article, and Jere Longman from New Orleans. Reporting was also contributed by Shaila Dewan in Beaumont, Tex.; Michael Brick in New Orleans; Thayer Evans in Galveston; Ralph Blumenthal and Maureen Balleza in Houston; William Yardley in Hackberry, La.; Sewell Chan in Baton Rouge, La.; Eric Schmitt in Washington, and Shadi Rahimi from New York.

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