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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Hurricane Slams Into Gulf Coast; Flooding Begins - New York Times

Hurricane Slams Into Gulf Coast; Flooding Begins - New York TimesSeptember 25, 2005
Hurricane Slams Into Gulf Coast; Flooding Begins
By SHAILA DEWAN and JERE LONGMAN

BEAUMONT, Tex., Sept. 24 - Hurricane Rita, with an eye 20 miles wide and wind gusts of almost 150 miles per hour, slammed into the Gulf Coast before dawn on Saturday, causing far less damage than officials had feared but raising new concerns as its torrential rain and storm surges caused widespread flooding across much of the region.

By late Saturday, only one death had been attributed to the storm or its remnants; one person was killed in Mississippi when a tornado hit a mobile home, The Associated Press reported. On Friday, 24 residents of a living center for the elderly died when the bus in which they were being evacuated caught fire.

Officials said the storm was less deadly than Hurricane Katrina partly because of the evacuation of millions of Gulf Coast residents who had transportation away from the area and heeded warnings, mindful of the flooding, death and destruction of nearly a month ago.

Through the day as the storm moved northward, every eye was on the rising waters. In Terrebonne Parish and Houma, south winds shoved water from the Gulf of Mexico through the low-lying lands, topping levees designed for storm drainage but unequipped for hurricane protection.

The high water left 15,000 residents vulnerable over an area of 820 square miles, said Don Schwab, president of Terrebonne Parish.

More than 650 evacuees had been placed in three local shelters by early Saturday evening, with the number expected to rise significantly, Mr. Schwab said. Water rose four to five feet in the lowest areas, he said, but some evacuees said it had risen even higher.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Saturday night that the storm appeared to be moving inland more quickly than had been expected. Heavy rains were still expected in its path, but forecasters had warned that the storm could stall over the Gulf Coast region, causing rainfall of up to 25 inches over days.

In Jefferson Parish, helicopters and boats from the Navy and the Coast Guard rescued about 500 people who were stranded in their homes around Lafitte, La., about 30 miles south of New Orleans, state officials said.

It was the largest search-and-rescue mission that had occurred so far in Louisiana in response to Hurricane Rita. Lt. Col. Pete Schneider, a Louisiana National Guard spokesman, said soldiers were "heavily engaged" in missions in Vermilion Parish and were trying to make their way to parishes farther west.

"We still are unable to perform evacuation, search-and-rescue missions in those areas due to the high winds," Colonel Schneider said.

Across Louisiana, nearly 18,000 people were in shelters. And power was out to more than 1.2 million customers in Texas and Louisiana.

Houston, where 2.5 million residents choked roadways for hours as they fled the approach of the storm, appeared to have been spared major damage. But Mayor Bill White and Gov. Rick Perry pleaded with residents not to return home yet, saying it was still unsafe to do so because of rain and high winds.

Worried that a rush home would result in another nightmarish traffic jam, the Texas Department of Transportation released an unusual plan that calls for people in various sectors in and around Houston to return on different days. Those from the northwest part of the city and from communities to the Northwest were told return Sunday. Those from the southwest are supposed to return Monday, and those just from a small part of the area to the northeast are supposed to return Tuesday.

Hurricane Rita made landfall about 3:40 a.m. Eastern time as a Category 3 storm, which carries winds up to 130 m.p.h., with its eye passing just east of Sabine Pass, Tex., near the Texas-Louisiana border. After hitting land, the storm weakened to a Category 2 and later was downgraded to a tropical storm, which has winds of less than 75 m.p.h.

President Bush, who was criticized for his administration's slow response to Hurricane Katrina, monitored Hurricane Rita from the United States Northern Command in Colorado Springs and other emergency command centers.

James Gunter, the fire chief in Jasper, Tex., about 70 miles north of the coast, said in a interview with KHOU-TV early in the morning: "We've had fires in the county that we have not been able to respond to - won't be able to respond to, period. The entire county is without power."

Chief Gunter added, "We can go out on the south side of our building and we can look to the south and we can see nothing less than utter devastation."

Early Saturday, 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 farther west along Galveston Island, on the north-facing bay shores, was expected to subside by midday.

In New Orleans, water that topped two repaired canal levees in the Ninth Ward on Friday because of rain and wind as Hurricane Rita approached began to recede somewhat on Saturday.

The Army Corps of Engineers said water had dropped just over a foot in the Industrial Canal by Saturday morning. Plans were being made for helicopters to drop 3,000-pound to 7,000-pound sandbags into a 25-to-30-foot gap where water still flowed into the evacuated Lower Ninth Ward, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, which had been battered by Hurricane Katrina.

"We just have to get clearance with Mother Nature," said Mitch Frazier, a spokesman for the corps.

The worst damage from Hurricane Rita appeared to be in southwestern Louisiana and East Texas. But the storm also sparked fires in Galveston and Houston. In Lake Charles, La., early unconfirmed reports told of heavy damage to the glass facade of the Hibernia Bank tower downtown, potential damage to casino barges on Lake Charles, and a fallen overpass on either Interstate 10 or Interstate 210, a spur to the south of town.

Parts of Beaumont were flooded, and there were indications that water had been swept around Port Arthur's horseshoe-shape seawall. One resident of Orange, a town just to the northeast, called the courthouse to say she was climbing into her attic to escape rising water.

Glass blew out of the J.P. Morgan/Chase Tower in downtown Houston, forcing the police to cordon off the area.

In coastal counties and parishes, crews of workers rose in the dark early Saturday and prepared to go out at first light to assess the damage, while inland Texas counties like Jasper were still under siege by the storm.

"We're in the process of going through the eye right now, so we've got a lot of rough times ahead," Diane Brown, the acting Jasper County Jail administrator, said after answering the telephone at the Sheriff's Office early Saturday morning.

In Louisiana, officials from Cameron and Calcasieu Parishes huddled in the Calcasieu Parish Jail, which had been evacuated of all 1,149 inmates before the storm. About 3 a.m. Saturday, wind was rattling the roof and the windows. "That's the sound of our lives changing forever," said Mike Aymond, a Calcasieu sheriff's deputy.

But, Deputy Aymond said: "It'd be a lot worse if New Orleans hadn't happened. People would have stayed."

Initial estimates by insurance experts put the damage from Hurricane Rita at $5 billion or less, far below the estimated $35 billion in damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina nearly a month ago and the $30 billion that had been feared had Galveston and Houston taken a direct hit.

"The areas of Texas and Louisiana where this came ashore was far less developed than the coastal areas of Louisiana and Mississippi where Katrina struck," said Robert P. Hartwig, the chief economist of the Insurance Information Institute, a trade group in New York. Hurricane Rita also struck with less force.

In Jefferson County, Tex., which includes Beaumont and Port Arthur, Carl Griffith, the county judge, estimated that only 10 percent to 15 percent of the county's 250,000 residents had stayed behind, compared with 40 percent in previous evacuations. In Cameron Parish, a low-lying area of bayous, farmland and fishing camps just south of Lake Charles, nearly all of the 9,000 residents had evacuated by late Friday. About 95 percent of the 200,000 residents in Calcasieu Parish, which includes Lake Charles, had evacuated, officials estimated.

In Beaumont, windows blew out of the ground floor of the Entergy building, which the county was using as a shelter and staging area for first responders, causing a drop in pressure throughout the building, the tallest in downtown. As the first rescue workers left, the wind continued to shake cars and drive horizontal sheets of rain.

The Houston police had confirmed 28 burglaries overnight and arrested 16 people, said Frank Michel, a spokesman for Mayor White. Eight of those arrested, four juveniles, three women and one man, were accused of looting a Target store. Three were arrested at a business on the city's southwest side, and one person was caught stealing beer from a convenience store, the police said.

Residents who had not evacuated were warned by the National Hurricane Center to remain in place until Hurricane Rita moved farther inland, because traveling, especially in cars, would be dangerous. In most evacuated areas, officials said it was not safe to return, except in Friendswood, Tex., a suburb of Houston.

On Saturday, Army helicopter crews from the First Cavalry Division, based at Fort Hood, Tex., began flying Federal Emergency Management Agency teams whose job it was to gauge damage from the hurricane.

"The air crews are facilitating the movement of personnel to conduct assessments of the conditions in anticipation of the relief effort," said Maj. Greg Thompson, the First Air Cavalry Brigade executive officer. The military also sent five mortuary teams from New Orleans to Fort Sam Houston, Tex., and five other teams were placed on alert, according to a statement from the Northern Command, which manages the Pentagon's efforts in domestic emergency and relief missions. Those teams help recover and transport the dead.

By early Saturday, more than 50 helicopters, as well as other surveillance and transport planes, were available for damage assessment and search-and-rescue missions, according to a Northern Command statement.

Shaila Dewan reported from Beaumont, Tex., for this article, and Jere Longman from Houma, La. Reporting was contributed by Ralph Blumenthal in Houston, Sewell Chan in Baton Rouge, La., Thom Shanker in Washington, Timothy Williams in Beaumont, William Yardley in Lake Charles, La., and Joseph B. Treaster in New York.

1 comment:

  1. When Perdue said we will have 2 days out to conserve gas he wasn't talking about us Pro. Armwood! So why aren't we having class today! Are you conserving gas? ( I love your class) This is Clyde Chavo by the way...t&th 9:25

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