Texas Coast Braces For Rita

Dean Hutton, left, and Jonathan Edgar sit in a bus stop shelter as the ocean waves crash around them in Key West, Fla.
Dean Hutton, left, and Jonathan Edgar sit in a bus stop shelter as the ocean waves crash around them in Key West, Fla. (J. Pat Carter -- AP)

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By Ceci Connolly and Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 22, 2005

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 21 -- Hurricane Rita, a massive storm packing 165-mph winds and destructive force equal to the might of Hurricane Katrina, tracked through the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, prompting evacuation orders for more than 1.1 million Texans and the few remaining holdouts in storm-ravaged New Orleans.

After nicking the Florida Keys as a Category 2 storm, Rita intensified to Category 5 status, the highest ranking used by the National Hurricane Center. Authorities in Galveston, Tex., a coastal city of 60,000, ordered mandatory evacuations.

By midday, a 20-mile line of cars snaked up Interstate 45 out of Galveston -- scene of the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history when an unnamed storm killed 8,000 to 10,000 people in 1900. Thousands of cars crammed roads around Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city, where authorities also ordered residents in low-lying areas to evacuate.

About 1,000 state troopers were staged near the Gulf Coast, while dozens of shelters prepared for evacuees in Austin, Lufkin, College Station-Bryan, San Antonio and Huntsville. In Austin, which just three weeks ago took in 4,000 Katrina evacuees, 50 shelters were being opened to house as many as 15,000 Texas Gulf Coast evacuees.

President Bush declared states of emergency in Texas and Louisiana. Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) urged residents along a 250-mile swath, from Beaumont to Corpus Christi, to leave.

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

In recent days, Rita has grown into a giant storm with hurricane-force winds stretching 45 miles from its center and tropical storm force winds extending 140 miles. Forecasters project Rita will make landfall early Saturday along the central Texas coast. However, even a slight shift north would put New Orleans back in the bull's-eye, prompting fears the city's already-fragile levee system could be breached again, flooding neighborhoods that remain coated in a crusty layer of muck.

Painful memories of Katrina -- with a death toll that reached 1,000 Wednesday -- drove thousands of private citizens and elected officials to act fast rather than take the wait-and-see approach that greeted some coastal storms in recent years.

"If Katrina did anything, it woke people up to the power of Mother Nature," said Anthony Griffin, 51, who spent Wednesday boarding up his Galveston law office before heading to his brother's home in Fort Worth. "When Katrina hit this country, it was in a city that everyone knew and those folks looking at the TV camera looked like folks we knew."

In Texas, Perry urged those in the path of the storm to evacuate. "Homes can be rebuilt; lives cannot," he said from the governor's mansion in Austin. "If you're on the coast between Beaumont and Corpus Christi, now's the time to leave."

The Department of Defense, taking lessons from Katrina, intends to send surveillance aircraft soon after Rita strikes land to "determine the magnitude of the relief required and, secondly, where it would be required," said Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense. "We want to ensure as a matter of policy we have better eyes on target."

Already, about 5,000 Texas National Guard troops have been mobilized and another 1,300 who had been assisting in New Orleans are returning from Louisiana. The Pentagon is drawing up plans to assist local law enforcement "in the event that the first responders become the first victims," as happened in Katrina, he said. "The National Guard MP [military police] response to Katrina was nothing short of extraordinary, but it was a response that was formulated on the fly as we recognized an emerging law enforcement requirement," he said.

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Hurricane Rita
Hurricane Storm Rita
© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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