Thousands Fleeing Rita Jam Roads From Coast

By Blaine Harden and Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 23, 2005

GALVESTON, Tex., Sept. 22 -- As they joined a vast, traffic-snarled exodus from Houston and the upper Texas Gulf Coast, hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Hurricane Rita were stuck in their cars throughout much of Thursday, with many running out of gas and sweltering on roadsides in 100-degree heat as they waited for authorities to bring them gasoline.

"Now is not a time for warnings; it is a time for evacuation," Houston Mayor Bill White said.

But even as the mayor issued the warning that helped turn many of the freeways in and around the nation's fourth-largest city into a parking lot, the projected trajectory of Hurricane Rita shifted course, with its center moving eastward away from Houston. Although 70- to 90-mph winds and rains were still expected to hit the city by early Saturday, the main path of the storm was aimed near the Texas-Louisiana border.

Throughout the Gulf Coast, communities were evacuated in anticipation of what Thursday night was rated a Category 4 hurricane. As many as 2 million people were urged to leave. Oil refineries buttoned down. Authorities said state and federal emergency management teams and military units were positioned on the fringes of the region.

President Bush said that officials at every level of government "are preparing for the worst," and that the United States has the "resources there to help the federal, state and local officials to respond swiftly and effectively."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) took the unprecedented step of reversing traffic flow on the inbound lanes of several major Houston area freeways so that stalled drivers could move inland. He also ordered gasoline tankers moved to the evacuation routes to give fuel to stranded motorists.

"We will get fuel to those who are low or out," Perry said. "I urge everyone out there to exercise patience."

Houston's mayor acknowledged that the pre-hurricane evacuation preparations, which some Texas officials had been boasting about earlier this week, had gone awry, in part, because too many people attempted to flee the city at once.

White said he had been imploring federal and state officials since early Thursday to reverse traffic flow on the inbound lanes, but that it had only begun to occur by mid-afternoon.

"I would say there will be some learning experiences," the mayor said.

Beaumont, near the Louisiana state line, was virtually deserted Thursday night. "We had the Katrina people in our homes. We saw what they went through. That was lesson enough," said police spokeswoman Crystal Holmes.

In New Orleans, a fresh unease was palpable among the pockets of people who remained.

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