9-21-05 - Rita becomes a category 3 in the Gulf
9-22-05 - Rita becomes a category 5 in the Gulf
9-23-05 - extraordinary tragedy in evacuations

Mandatory evacuations begin in Keys as Florida readies for Rita
Hurricane warnings issued in Monroe County and for Miami-Dade County.

UPDATE: Tropical Storm Rita at 11a.m.
UPDATE: Tropical Storm Rita at 11a.m. (News Channel 5)
Sep 18, 2005
Tropical Storm Rita
Tropical Storm Rita (HO / AFP / Getty Images Photo)
Sep 19, 2005
By Michelle Spitzer of the Associated Press
& Andrew Ryan of

September 19, 2005, 11:15 AM EDT
KEY WEST -- Officials ordered residents evacuated from the lower Florida Keys on Monday as a strengthening Tropical Storm Rita churned toward the exposed island chain, bringing with it a potential 8-foot storm surge. Hurricane warnings were issued for the Keys and Miami-Dade County.

In Broward County, meanwhile, all schools will be closed on Tuesday because of Rita, district spokeswoman Nadine Drew said.

Drew also said that extra-curricular activities and adult education classes at Broward schools would be closed Monday and Tuesday.

Broward County identified three schools as hurricane shelters for Monday night: Monarch High in Coconut Creek, Fox Trail Elementary in Davie and Watkins Elementary in Pembroke Park.

For more information, people can call the Broward school district's information hotline at 754-321-0321 or visit its Web site at

The Keys and Miami-Dade County were under a hurricane warning, meaning hurricane-force winds were expected by Tuesday morning, and Broward County was under a tropical storm warning and hurricane watch. Palm Beach County was under a tropical storm warning.

In southwest Florida, the Gulf coast from Cape Sable north to Chokoloskee was under a hurricane watch, and a tropical storm watch was issued for Chokoloskee north to Englewood.

Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said Monday that the storm's eye is predicted to remain over the water between the Keys and Cuba, but even a slight deviation to the north could bring it over the islands and closer to mainland Florida.

``Right now the biggest concern is the Keys,'' Mayfield said.

The mandatory evacuation from the Seven-Mile-Bridge south to Key West covers 40,000 residents as the weather began deteriorating as the first rain bands approached. Shelters in Key West will not open, officials said, because they want people to evacuate further north.

Shelters have been opened at the Stanley Switlik Elementary School in Marathon, at Coral Shores High in Islamorada, and at Florida International University in Miami.

"The National Hurricane Center is telling us that there is some risk that Rita might reach Category 3 status as it approaches the Keys," explained Irene Toner, Monroe's emergency management director. "Our policy is to call for a general evacuation in areas that might be prone to Category 3 impacts."

A mandatory evacuation order continues for nonresidents and visitors in the Upper and Middle Keys. A mandatory evacuation order in the Upper and Middle Keys has also been issued for those residents in mobile homes, areas at risk to storm-surge flooding, other specified risk areas as well as boat live-aboards.

In the Bahamas, which could be struck by Rita first, few on Mayaguana Island bothered to board their windows or stock up on emergency supplies as they normally would for a hurricane, said Earnel Brown, manager of the Baycaner Beach Resort.

``I don't expect that much trouble,'' Brown said. ``I don't think we're going to have that much damage from it.''

Cuba had activated its civil defense program, issuing bulletins about the storm's progress over state-run radio.

Six provinces along the island's north were on cyclone alert and local leaders as well as average citizens were being instructed to monitor the storm's progress and obey any forthcoming instructions from civil defense officials.

In Key West, the streets were quiet Monday morning as Mike Pettengill, 54, packed his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. A resident of Stuart, he hoped to beat the rain and traffic heading north and wanted to be able to find gas before stations close or run dry.

``We walked by a bar (Sunday) and heard there was an evacuation. We were totally shocked. I couldn't believe it. Where did it come from?'' he said.

Kelly Friend and two workers were boarding up her store in Key West, Audio Video in Paradise Inc., and painted a message on the plywood: ``Hey bartender 1 Rita on the rocks to go!''

``Not that we're afraid of the hurricane, but we want to protect our investment,'' Friend said. ``Plus it gives us an excuse to take a day off and drink.''

Rita, which strengthened Sunday into a tropical storm, had sustained winds of 60 mph and was forecast to be in the Straits of Florida between the Keys and northern Cuba on Monday, possibly as a Category 1 hurricane with winds of at least 74 mph, forecasters said.

The entire Keys was under a hurricane warning. Rainfall totals of 6 to 15 inches were possible in the Keys, with 3 to 5 inches possible across southern Florida. Storm surges of 6 to 8 feet above normal tide levels were predicted to batter the Keys.

Officials extended mandatory evacuation orders Monday for visitors throughout the Keys, including the Dry Tortugas, and residents in mobile homes and areas at risk for storm-surge flooding, as well as those living aboard their boats.

``We're happy to get out of here before the storm comes,'' said Joan Taylor, 73, of Midland Park, N.J., who was planning to fly out of Key West on Monday.

The stream of vehicles leaving the Keys on Sunday included RVs, cars towing boats and thousands of motorcycle riders who left an annual gathering a day early. U.S. 1, the lone highway in the Keys, was packed.

Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency for Florida, which gives the state authority to oversee evacuations and activate the National Guard, among other powers.

Despite the evacuation order, however, some hotels and restaurants in Key West remained open, and few businesses were boarded up Sunday night.

At 11 a.m. EDT, Rita was centered about 195 miles southeast of Nassau, Bahamas, and about 430 miles east-southeast of Key West. It was moving to the west-northwest at about 12 mph, according to the hurricane center.

Four hurricanes struck Florida last year, killing dozens of people and causing $19 billion in insured losses. Hurricane Dennis brushed by the Keys in July before slamming the Florida Panhandle.

Farther out in the Atlantic, Hurricane Philippe formed late Sunday well east of the Lesser Antilles. At 5 a.m., Philippe had maximum sustained wind near 75 mph, and was centered about 385 miles east of the Leeward Islands. It was moving to the north near 7 mph.

Long-range forecasts showed the system moving into the Gulf of Mexico late in the week as a hurricane, then possibly approaching Mexico or Texas.

But forecasters warned those across the U.S. southern coast that long-term predictions are subject to large errors. That means that areas ravaged by Katrina should be watching the storm.

Rita is the 17th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season. That makes this season the fourth busiest since record keeping began in 1851 _ 21 tropical storms formed in 1933, 19 developed in 1995 and 1887 and 18 formed in 1969, according to the hurricane center.

Four hurricanes struck Florida last year, killing dozens of people and causing $19 billion in insured losses in Florida. Hurricane Dennis brushed by the Keys in July, flooding some Key West streets, toppling trees and knocking out power, before slamming the Florida Panhandle.

Hurricane Katrina hit South Florida last month, killing 11 people.

Farther out in the Atlantic, Hurricane Philippe formed late Sunday well east of the Lesser Antilles. At 5 a.m., Philippe had maximum sustained winds near 75 mph, and was centered about 385 miles east of the Leeward Islands and was moving to the north near 7 mph.

The hurricane season started June 1 and ends Nov. 30.

Associated Press Writer Dominic Duncombe in Nassau, Bahamas, contributed to this report.


Rita Becomes Hurricane as It Heads for Gulf of Mexico 

Sept. 20 . 2005 (Bloomberg) -- Rita strengthened into a hurricane as it headed toward the Gulf of Mexico, threatening to hit the coasts of Texas and Louisiana by this weekend.

Rita is forecast to pass the lower Florida Keys by midday and head into the warm waters of the Gulf, the National Hurricane Center said. It will gain power as it moves over the warm water, and will be a so-called Category 3 storm with winds of at least 111 mph when it reaches the Texas coastline by the weekend, center meteorologist Chris Sisko said.

While Rita is forecast to hit anywhere from Corpus Christi to Galveston, there is a chance it may veer to the east and strike Louisiana's coast, Sisko said. This threat to the coastal region already devastated by Hurricane Katrina prompted New Orleans's mayor to suspend plans for residents to reenter the city and officials in Texas to call for a voluntary evacuation.

``The greatest chance, in terms of computer models, is for Rita to hit Texas, but Louisiana is also indicated by a few models,'' Sisko said today in an interview.

Rita was located about 100 miles (161 kilometers) east- southeast of Key West, Florida, as of 8 a.m. local time, the hurricane center said. The storm is moving west about 15 mph and may dump as much as 12 inches of rain on the Keys.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin yesterday suspended plans to allow residents to return to their homes and businesses because of the risk posed by Rita. The Louisiana city, once home to a half a million people, was flooded after Hurricane Katrina's storm surge overwhelmed the system of levees and pumps that held back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River.

Levees Won't Hold

New Orleans's levees are weak and can't handle more than inches or a 3-foot storm surge, Nagin said yesterday during a televised press conference.

Officials in Galveston called for a voluntary evacuation starting at 2 p.m. today from the island of 60,000 people.

The current path puts the storm on course to threaten Texas's oil facilities, prompting Royal Dutch Shell Plc and other oil companies to pull workers from rigs near the two states. The rigs account for 44 percent of U.S. refining capacity.

Corpus Christi, which is about 125 miles from the border with Mexico, is home to two refineries operated by San Antonio- based Valero Energy Corp. and one each by Citgo Petroleum Corp. and Koch Industries Inc.

Chevron Corp., Royal Dutch Shell Plc and BP Plc, three of the world's four largest oil companies, are among producers and drillers evacuating offshore workers ahead of Rita.

Oil Falls

Crude oil fell from a two-week high today in New York as forecasts showed Rita may veer more to the south that originally forecast, away from main refining and production areas in Texas and Louisiana.

Hurricanes are measured on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale. A tropical storm becomes a hurricane when its winds reach 74 mph. A Category 3 storm has winds of at least 111 mph, while Category 4 hurricanes have winds of 131 mph.

About 30 percent of U.S. oil production comes from platforms in the Gulf. The region accounts for 24 percent of U.S. gas output.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Heather Burke in New York at
Last Updated: September 20, 2005 10:24 EDT
Rita Upgraded To A Category 3 Hurricane 
Sep 21, 2005, 02:44 AM PDT

Rita has picked up more steam, upgraded at 2 a.m. ET to a Category 3 Hurricane with 115 mph winds. Rita appears headed for the Gulf Coast with Texas a likely target and western Louisiana and northern Mexico also possibilities.

And things could get worse: the Hurricane Center says Rita could be a Category 4 by 2 p.m. Wednesday and could make its second strike at the end of the week, possibly Friday.

Tuesday, Rita went from a tropical storm with top sustained wind of 70 mph early Tuesday to a hurricane with 100 mph winds by early afternoon as it passed just south of the Florida Keys.

Texas Governor Rick Perry's office says about 4,000 evacuees from Louisiana will be moved to Fort Chafee, Arkansas, 3,000 will be moved to Tennessee, and 250 will be moved to Nebraska.

In New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers is racing to patch up the city's fractured levee system. Residents who refused to flee Katrina - and those who have returned home - were again urged to evacuate, with the chance that heavy rain could trigger new floods.

Rita is now located about 145 miles west of Key West and about 130 miles northwest of Havana, moving west at about 14 mph, with hurricane force winds extending 45 miles from the center, and tropical storm force winds reaching out 140 miles from the eye of the storm, the season's fifth major hurricane.

In the wake of Rita's first strike, at least one segment of the Florida Keys highway, U.S. 1, is now barricaded because of water and debris from the storm surge that washed over the road - the only one in and out of the area. Scattered power outages are also reported.

According to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, about 1,300 people are in shelters in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and all three Keys hospitals were evacuated.

Thousands of residents and tourists had fled the low-lying island chain, where forecasters said Rita could dump up to 8 inches of rain, down from earlier forecasts of up to 15 inches.

Gov. Bush says over 2,000 Florida National Guard troops and dozens of law enforcement officers are ready to deal with the storm's aftermath. More than 200 truckloads of ice and water were prepared for delivery to the Keys if needed and helicopters are in place for search and rescue.

"We have got a lot of flooding, it is literally almost up to our knees. This storm surge is really coming over — there's a 4-foot wall behind these homes and the water is coming over these homes," said Tina Verona of CBS station WFOR-TV, reporting from Marathon, Fla.

Roads were nearly deserted in Marathon, about 45 miles northeast of Key West, and virtually all businesses were closed, except for the Stuffed Pig diner, where workers promised to keep serving food regardless of the weather.

"We've stayed open lots of times with no power. We've got a gas stove so it gets awful hot in here but we can still serve up food," said Julie Gervasio, who has worked at the restaurant for five years.

As Katrina pounded the Florida Keys, thousands of Katrina evacuees across Texas were being moved, via bus and air, away from coastal areas.

Forecasters said the storm could hit Texas by the end of the week. But a slight turn to the right was possible, and engineers warned that even a glancing blow to New Orleans and as little as three inches of rain could swamp the city's levees.

Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco strongly urged people along the Louisiana coast to be prepared to get out.

Rita's threat was enough to frighten places like Galveston, Texas – potentially in Rita's path – as many people are already clearing out under a mandatory evacuation, Strassmann reports.

"You should be listening to us and you should be prepared to go on the highway," said Lyda Ann Thomas, the mayor of Galveston.

"Nobody's going to take a chance. Everybody's a little bit scared right now because of the Katrina thing," Galveston evacuee Danny Owens told Strassmann.

On the southern side of the Florida Straits, Cuba evacuated 58,000 people from low-lying areas along the northern coast, more than 6,000 in Havana alone, Cuban National Defense officials reported Tuesday.

CBS News' Portia Siegelbaum reports that as Rita continues to move west-northwest, Cuba's Civil Defense lifted the hurricane alert in four provinces in central Cuba. Cuba evacuated 136,452 people, including 5,552 tourists, as of midday Tuesday, even though the island expects to be spared the brunt of Hurricane Rita's fury.

Cuba's top meteorologist, Jose Rubiera, said the heaviest accumulation of rain was 3.1 inches in Matanzas province, Siegelbaum reports, and the speed at which Rita is moving prevented greater accumulations despite the intensity of the rainfall, he said.

Cuban officials also transferred scores of tourists from a sea-level hotel on a tip of land jutting into the ocean at the Varadero beach resort, east of Havana, where high winds knocked down utility poles and scattered tree branches.

Rita is the 17th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, making this the fourth-busiest season since record-keeping started in 1851. The record is 21 tropical storms in 1933. Six hurricanes have hit Florida in the last 13 months.

The hurricane season started June 1 and ends Nov. 30.

©MMV, CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Posted on Thu, Sep. 22, 2005
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This NOAA satellite image taken Thursday at 2:45 AM EDT shows clouds associated with Hurricane Rita in the Gulf of Mexico. The storm is expected to make landfall over the Texas coast early Saturday. AP Photo /NOAA
This NOAA satellite image taken Thursday at 2:45 AM EDT shows clouds associated with Hurricane Rita in the Gulf of Mexico. The storm is expected to make landfall over the Texas coast early Saturday. AP Photo /NOAA
More photos
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 •  Fort Worth Star-Telegram | Galveston clears out ahead of Rita
 •  Nation's worst storm is Galveston's legacy
 •  Photos | Fleeing Galveston
 •  Video | Galveston evacuation
 •  Hurricane Rita spins toward Texas coast

Rita looms large heading towards Texas, New Orleans

Knight Ridder Newspapers

GALVESTON, Texas - Four hundred miles of dread stretched Thursday from Texas through Louisiana as Hurricane Rita, a recurring nightmare of catastrophe, closed in on an area that included Galveston, Houston and - unbelievably - New Orleans.

Still a top-of-scale Category 5 terror, Rita began hurling its outlying rain and wind into the Gulf Coast on Thursday morning. New Orleans received its first rain since Hurricane Katrina all but destroyed it only three weeks earlier.

Conditions will become progressively worse through Saturday, particularly along the east Texas and west Louisiana coast. Though Rita’s path and intensity will fluctuate before the core makes landfall around daybreak Saturday, it still was predicted to strike as a 125-mph Category Three hurricane.

Another disaster along the Gulf Coast seemed utterly inevitable. “I'm worried for my family,'' said Mike Garza, 38, a Houston resident who tried to drive his wife and three children to safety but - like thousands of others - confronted gasoline shortages and jammed highways. “I'll go as far as I can. I’m just trying to get out of town before it gets any worse.”

A hurricane warning covered 404 miles of coastline from Port O’Connor, Texas, to Morgan City, Louisiana. That means hurricane conditions are expected within 24 hours.

New Orleans found itself under a tropical storm watch, meaning winds higher than 34 mph were possible within 36 hours. Up to five inches of rain were expected in that already swamped city; engineers said they believed - they hoped - that newly repaired levees would withstand the strain.

Throughout the sprawling region, more than 1.3 million residents of Galveston, Corpus Christi, low-lying parts of Houston - and New Orleans -were under mandatory evacuation orders.

Horrified by the death and devastation wrought by Katrina, most people heeded the orders, triggering a reverse morning rush-hour out of Houston - except only the lucky few could really rush.

Gasoline supplies rapidly evaporated, stranding many motorists in mid-flight. That, in turn, intensified already lengthy jams along on all highways leading to higher ground. Most people remained calm, but gasoline availability and blocked highways fueled rising concern. Walter Nesbitt, 48, from Texas City, and his wife were found on I-45 about 10 miles on the wrong side - the south side - of Houston. They waited in a line of 10 cars at a Shell station. They were trying to reach the safety of San Antonio, about 190 miles away.

“All I can think about is getting gas,” Nesbitt said. “I can’t even think about what Rita is going to do to my home, which I think may not be there when I get back. I never dreamed a city this size would just simply start running out of gas, but it looks like that is what’s happening.’’

He guessed he would need 15 hours to reach his destination, usually about three hours away.

Roads were crowded and gasoline in short supply as far away as Austin, nearly 200 miles from the coast. Convoys of military trucks streamed south.

“There’s no panic, but you can tell that people are worried,” said Bob Richards, a Denver resident who was driving through and found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. “There are a lot of evacuees here.”

Yet, only residents of mobile homes and those living in areas of Houston that are in a 100-year flood plain were told to leave. Officials said they would have needed a week to evacuate the entire city of 2 million people. Evacuation orders did cover all of Galveston, and most of those 270,000 residents left.

Chastened for its slow response to Katrina, the federal government mustered troops, relief workers and tons of supplies in staging areas just outside the projected impact zone.

Forecasters said they believed that Rita’s power peaked early Thursday, when it became the third strongest U.S. hurricane, in terms of atmospheric pressure, since record-keeping began in 1851.

But the storm will spend most of its time over unusually warm, nourishing water - its path kept jogging a little toward the east Thursday, lengthening the time it will spend in that environment - and it was expected to retain considerable destructive capability. Alarmingly for holdouts in New Orleans and those hoping to return soon, the new forecasts edged the core's path closer to the Texas-Louisiana border. And the storm's danger resided not only in its power but also in its size and scope.

Hurricane-force winds higher than 74 mph roared 85 miles in every direction from the center; tropical storm-force winds higher than 39 mph ranged 185 miles in every direction, and area that will include central Louisiana.

Tides already were a foot above normal in areas of Mississippi and Louisiana struck just three weeks ago by Katrina. Tides in that area will increase to three to four feet, forecasters said, topped by large waves. Even in a best-case scenario, Rita’s rain and storm surge again could flood portions of New Orleans.

Worse, at the point of the core’s landfall and to the east that unfortunate spot, 20-foot storm surges were expected, enough to cover many areas along the coast.

As of 11 a.m. Thursday, the projected path carried the core _ surrounded by 125-mph sustained winds and higher gusts _ ashore about 50 miles east of Galveston around 4 a.m. CDT Saturday. Tropical storm-force winds could reach Louisiana by 2 a.m. Friday and Texas by noon. The first hurricane force winds could arrive by 11 p.m. Friday. And thus, great numbers of people boarded up, packed up and fled. In Pasadena, southeast of Houston and close to Galveston Bay, these signs were spray-painted on shuttered businesses.

O’Reilly Auto Parts: “Gone Fishin.”

Deer Park Vacuum: “Open Monday with wet vacs.”

The Shell station: “We will survive.”

Fadel and Hanna of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported from Houston and Merzer of The Miami Herald reported from Washington. Edwin Garcia of the San Jose Mercury News contributed to this report from Pasadena, Texas.

September 22, 2005 update ...there is no doubt that hurricane Rita has been manipulated to increase strength and turn it in the past 12 hours to move towards houston (its path just a few hours ago was to port lavaca far to the south of houston) ... it made a hard right turn overnight when the visible satellites could not track its deflection ... the oil futures are projecting $5.00 + per gallon by morning ... your country is being trashed folks and this is just the beginning  ... aren't you happy you have an oil president ?? listen for details of this crazy world on my show this week ... jim mccanney

Evacuation Turns Deadly as Storm Advances


HOUSTON (Sept. 23, 2005) - Hurricane Rita roared toward the Texas and Louisiana coast with 135 mph winds Friday, creating monumental traffic jams along evacuation routes and raising fears of a crippling blow to the nation's oil-refining industry.

The storm was expected to come ashore early Saturday along the upper Texas-Louisiana coast on a course that could spare Houston and Galveston a direct hit. But Rita could plow into the oil and chemical centers of Beaumont and Port Arthur, about 75 miles east of Houston.

Also Friday, as many as 24 people were killed when a bus carrying elderly evacuees caught fire.

In rainy New Orleans, water poured over a patched levee, gushing into the city's hard-hit but largely empty Ninth Ward and heightening fears that Rita would flood the devastated city all over again.

"Our worst fears came true," said Maj. Barry Guidry of the Georgia National Guard. "We have three significant breaches in the levee and the water is rising rapidly."

By Friday morning, the freeways within Houston had cleared out, but traffic was still bumper-to-bumper from the outskirts of the city toward Austin and Dallas. The state escorted tanker trucks full of gas to empty stations in small towns along the way.

Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, the chief executive for the county surrounding Houston, told residents who had not left yet to stay where they were for the storm.

The bus fire took place in a traffic jam on Interstate 45 near Wilmer, southeast of Dallas. The vehicle was rocked by explosions and engulfed in flames that reduced it to a blackened, burned-out shell.

Early indications were that the bus it caught fire because of mechanical problems, then passengers' oxygen tanks started exploding, Dallas County Sheriff's Department spokesman Don Peritz said.

Nearly 2 million people along the Texas and Louisiana coasts were urged to get out of the way of Rita, setting off an unprecedented exodus that brought traffic to a standstill across the Houston metropolitan area. Cars overheated and ran out of gas in 10- and 12-hour traffic jams. Some drivers gave up and turned around and went home.

  Voices From the Storm  

Evacuations in Houston

AFP/Getty Images

'I never saw anything so disorganized.''

-- Timothy Adcock, a Houston landscaper whose car broke down while he was evacuating


"It can't get much worse, 100 yards an hour," fumed Willie Bayer, 70. "It's frustrating bumper-to-bumper."

Scores of petrochemical plants are situated along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast in the nation's biggest concentration of oil refineries, and damage and disruptions caused by Rita could cause already-rising oil and gasoline prices to go even higher. Also, environmentalists warned of the possibility of a toxic spill.

Plants shut down operations, and hundreds of workers were evacuated from offshore oil rigs. Texas Gov. Rick Perry said state officials had been in contact with plants about "taking appropriate procedures to safeguard their facilities."

At 11 a.m. EDT, Rita was about 210 miles southeast of Port Arthur, moving northwest near 10 mph. Its winds had weakened to near 135 mph -- down from 175 mph on Thursday. That meant Rita was on the border between a Category 3 and a Category 4 storm.

Its hurricane-force winds extended up to 85 miles from the center, and its tropical storm-force winds reached outward 205 miles, meaning Houston and Galveston might not feel Rita's full fury but could still get battered.

Two communities that stood to bear the brunt of the storm were Port Arthur, a city of about 58,000 that is home to industries that include oil, shrimping and crawfishing; and Beaumont, a petrochemical, shipbuilding and port city of about 114,000. Beaumont was the site of the 1901 Spindletop oil gusher that gave birth to the modern petroleum industry.

The first bands of rain were expected before nightfall Friday. Forecasters warned of the possibility of a storm surge of 15 to 20 feet, battering waves and rain of up to 20 inches, with more than 25 inches possible over the next several days as the storm moves inland into Texas and Louisiana and wrings itself out.

Texas officials scrambled to reroute several inbound highways to accommodate outbound traffic, but many people were waiting so long they ran out of gas and were forced to park.

"We know you're out there," Houston Mayor Bill White said of the congestion that extended well into Louisiana. "We understand there's been fuel shortages."

Texas Army National Guard trucks were escorted by police to directly provide motorists with gasoline. The state was also working to get more than 200,000 gallons of gas to fuel-starved stations in the Houston area.

By late Thursday night, the traffic was at least moving slowly, but was still backed up for about 100 miles in what White called "one of the largest mass evacuations in American history."

Rita brought steady rain to New Orleans for the first time since Katrina. The forecast was for 3 to 5 inches in the coming days -- dangerously close to the amount engineers said could send floodwaters pouring back into recently dry neighborhoods.

Dozens of blocks in the Ninth Ward were under water as a waterfall at least 30 feet wide poured over and through a dike that had been used to patch breaks in the Industrial Canal levee. Guidry of the National Guard said water was rising about three inches a minute.

The impoverished neighborhood was one of the areas of the city hit hardest by Katrina's floodwaters and finally had been pumped dry before Hurricane Rita struck.

Sally Forman, an aide to Mayor Ray Nagin, said officials knew the levees were compromised, but they believe that the Ninth Ward is cleared of residents.

"I wouldn't imagine there's one person down there," Forman said.

The usually bustling tourist island of Galveston -- rebuilt after as many as 12,000 people died in a 1900 hurricane that is still the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history -- was all but abandoned, with at least 90 percent of its 58,000 residents cleared out.

The last major hurricane to strike the Houston area was Category-3 Alicia in 1983. It flooded downtown Houston, spawned 22 tornadoes and left 21 people dead.

At Houston's Johnson Space Center, NASA evacuated its staff, powered down the computers at Mission Control and turned the international space station over to the Russian space agency.

Katrina's death toll in Louisiana rose to 841 Friday, pushing the body count to at least 1,078 across the Gulf Coast. But the company under contract to collect the bodies in the New Orleans area suspended operations until at least Sunday because of the approaching storm.

In southwestern Louisiana, up to 500,000 residents along the state's southwest coast were urged to evacuate and state officials planned to send in buses to take refugees.

The U.S. mainland has not been hit by two Category 4 storms in the same year since 1915. Katrina came ashore Aug. 29 as a Category 4.

"Katrina. It's scared everyone," said Dianna Soileau, 29, who was fleeing the refinery town of Texas City with her husband and two children. "We don't want to be the same thing."

Associated Press writers Pam Easton in Galveston and Liz Austin in Austin contributed to this report.

9/23/2005 11:57:14

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.
Posted on Fri, Sep. 23, 2005
  R E L A T E D   C O N T E N T 
Emergency crews investigate the scene where a bus caught fire and exploded on northbound Interstate 45, Friday, in Wilmer, Texas. The bus carrying elderly evacuees from Hurricane Rita caught fire and was rocked by explosions on a gridlocked highway near Dallas, killing as many as 24 people, authorities said. The bus, with about 45 people on board, had been traveling since Thursday. AP Photo /Matt Slocum
Emergency crews investigate the scene where a bus caught fire and exploded on northbound Interstate 45, Friday, in Wilmer, Texas. The bus carrying elderly evacuees from Hurricane Rita caught fire and was rocked by explosions on a gridlocked highway near Dallas, killing as many as 24 people, authorities said. The bus, with about 45 people on board, had been traveling since Thursday. AP Photo /Matt Slocum
More photos
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 •  No way out: Many poor stuck in Houston
 •  Rita produces new crop of storm refugees
 •  Feds promise fuel to fleeing evacuees
 •  Kansas City Star | For hospital, storm offered a learning experience
 •  Kansas City Star | Fleeing Galveston
 •  Bus carrying evacuees catches fire
 • Hurricane
Rita assaults Gulf Coast

Knight Ridder Newspapers

A mass killer long before its core drilled ashore, Hurricane Rita assaulted a vast swath of the Gulf Coast late Friday. Its torrential rain, towering storm surge and destructive winds again inundated parts of New Orleans and threatened to swamp key oil refineries.

Rita's first victims -- 24 elderly or infirm evacuees -- died not from rain, not from seawater, not from winds. Fire killed them in what they thought was the safety of a bus carrying them away from a Houston suburb and away from danger.

Other people hundreds of miles from the coast -- including many evacuees seeking refuge -- also confronted grave risk:

Rita was predicted to linger for days over northeast Texas and western Louisiana and Arkansas, pouring 25 inches of rain on the region and generating perilous inland floods.

Another sweeping natural disaster was in the making -- the second in fewer than four weeks.

"If you see this Social Security number on a body, it's mine," said Norma Kirk, 64, a resident of Port Arthur, directly in the line of attack. She wrote the number on her arm before police showed up just ahead of the storm to take her to safety.

Officials said Rita could destroy 6,000 homes, affect 1.8 million households and inflict more than $8 billion in damage -- in Texas alone.

"Keep this state in your prayers," Gov. Rick Perry said.

More flooding in New Orleans

About 450 miles away, water spilled over at least one levee and floods returned to parts of already devastated New Orleans.

Many neighborhoods most severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29 also caught a wet slap from Rita, though few people had returned. Eight feet of water covered streets and seeped into houses in the impoverished Lower Ninth Ward, the Arabi and Chalmette neighborhoods and elsewhere.

"It's like a repeat. It's just sad," said Tracey Jordan, who sat in a shelter in Lafayette and watched television footage of his Ninth Ward neighborhood flooding again.

Portions of Gulfport and other cities in Mississippi also endured new floods, and forecasters warned points all the way to Alabama to expect the same.

Still, Rita seemed to aim its worst at the Texas-Louisiana border, east of Galveston and Houston and west of New Orleans.

On both sides of the state line, shelter space, food and gasoline vanished.

Desperate evacuees and holdouts with sudden second thoughts sought refuge anywhere they could -- some moved into sturdy school buildings and other makeshift shelters, some pitched tents in the rest stops of upstate roads, some retreated to . . . anywhere they could reach.

"We were going to stay, but the eye is coming too close to us," Ronnie Gibbs of Lake Charles, La., said deciding to hustle his family to Baton Rouge. "We are going to take a big hit."

The state line is not densely populated, though many small cities at or near the coast -- Port Arthur and Beaumont in Texas and Lake Charles, Cameron and Abbeville in Louisiana -- sat shuttered as those who defied evacuation orders shuddered.

"Unfortunately, they're on their own," said Port Arthur police officer Rocky Bridges.

More gas shortages

In addition, four large oil refineries were in that area and 12 others are nearby. More than 1,000 oil rigs stood between Rita and the coast. More shortages of gasoline seemed certain, as did prices that could reach $4 a gallon.

To help conserve gasoline, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue asked schools to cancel classes Monday and Tuesday.

The storm was immense and Rita's spiral bands of wind and rain pounded the coast throughout the day and night, heralding the pre-dawn arrival of the eye wall and sustained winds that could reach 115 mph.

Rita's hurricane winds stretched 85 miles in most directions and could retain their power 100 miles inland; its tropical storm-force winds extended 205 miles from the center; its rain field reached even farther.

Though its top winds weakened a bit during the day, this hurricane still had it all and a lot of it, especially storm surge that could inundate low-lying portions of the coast with 15 feet of seawater and kill anyone within reach.

"This is the tsunami effect," said Jack Colley, Texas' emergency operations coordinator.

But the primary measure of a storm's cost must be made in human life, and the toll began horribly.

Authorities said the 24 elderly and infirm evacuees from the Houston area perished when the bus that was carrying them burned to a blackened shell on I-45 south of Dallas.

The blaze, which may have started in the brake system, was accelerated by the patients' oxygen tanks, some of which exploded. The deaths came despite frantic rescue efforts by sheriff's deputies, according to Sgt. Don Peritz, a spokesman for the Dallas County Sheriff's Department.

"I can't remember one this bad," he said.

The tragedy intensified monumental traffic jams that severely complicated final-hour evacuations.

Evacuees scattered

Nearly everyone who evacuated the coast seemed to have at least made it inland, but many remained stranded and scattered around Texas, searching for gasoline and food and, in some cases, medical attention.

At one point, huge military cargo airplanes flew 1,300 people out of the Beaumont-Port Arthur area, many from local hospitals, nursing homes and private residences. Some of those evacuees were critically ill, attached to respirators and intravenous tubes.

As always, however, some people in vulnerable areas insisted on remaining behind. About 500 holdouts stayed in Port Arthur, a bayside shipping and oil-refinery city of 57,000. Others were found in Beaumont, also an oil-refining center.

"I know it sounds stupid, but I'm just going to stay here and ride it out, do the best I can," said Earl M. Ricardo, 58, a lifetime Beaumont resident who was riding his bicycle along Fourth Street, where empty plastic bottles scratched along the street, scattered by the wind.

Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade County, said the greatest initial danger came from the storm surge.

Some islands, including Galveston, could get hit by floods coming and going -- from the Gulf of Mexico as the center approaches and from bays as the storm leaves and water drains back out to sea.

But Mayfield emphasized that people well inland also had to maintain utmost vigilance. Atmospheric steering currents were weakening and Rita was likely to hover over the region for three or more days.

Typically, inland flooding kills more people than any other hurricane-related danger.

"Rita is not going to be finished after landfall," Mayfield said. "Most often, people drive their cars through flooded-out roadways and get swept away to their deaths."

He also worried about environmental damage. The Beaumont-Port Arthur area that seemed most directly targeted by the center of the storm serves as the home of numerous refineries and related facilities, many of which could be swamped.

“There are petrochemical facilities in those locations that are sure to be impacted,” Mayfield said. “The strong winds will also test the building codes in the path of Rita.”

Gas delivery disrupted

Well before making landfall, Rita had disrupted delivery of gasoline to much of the nation.

Explorer Pipeline of Tulsa, Okla., whose pipelines provide 10 percent of the gasoline lowing to the Midwest, confirmed that its customers would be without gasoline for at least several days. Longhorn Pipeline, which flows into New Mexico and Arizona, also remained closed down.

Colonial Pipeline of Alpharetta, Ga., said it was forced into periodic shutdowns Friday because it was receiving reduced supplies from refiners. Colonial’s network flows through the southeast and mid-Atlantic regions. It expects to draw gasoline from other refiners over the next few days.

The website, which tracks the offshore oil industry, warned that more than 1,200 offshore oil and natural gas rigs faced hurricane-force winds.

So do many refineries; 19 or 26 Texas refineries were closed Friday. Should they stay closed more than two weeks, gasoline prices nationwide could surge to above $4 a gallon, analysts warned.

And so, as nightfall arrived and so did Rita, military officials at all levels mustered to deliver aid and comfort as soon as the storm passed, in many cases in marked contrast to the response after Katrina.

The much-criticized Federal Emergency Management Agency stockpiled relief supplies in staging areas and said hundreds of search and rescue teams were ready to roll.

At the Pentagon, Col. Kenneth C. Madden, the Army’s deputy division chief for current operations, said an infantry brigade _ about 3,000 soldiers _ from the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, N.C., could arrive within seven hours of receiving orders.

Other resources on standby included helicopters and crews, engineers, truck drivers and communication specialists from the 1st Calvary Division and the Army’s 3rd Corps at Fort Hood, Texas.

About 300 Texas National Guard troops in 150 vehicles began driving from San Antonio to Houston with food, water and ice and propane to set up rescue operations immediately after the storm.

In New Orleans, 17,000 National Guard and active duty troops remained in place, now assigned to help the city recover from a second hurricane. Some eventually will move west toward the new impact area,

“We’re going to attack the storm east to west,” said Gen. John Basilica, deputy commander of Joint Task Force Pelican.

Douglas of the Fort Worth Star Telegram reported from Port Arthur, Klepper from the Kansas City Star reported from Beaumont and Merzer of the Miami Herald reported from Washington.

Also contributing to this article were Steve Campbell, John Cheves, Gordon Dickson, Edwin Garcia, Leila Fadel, Bill Hanna, Jan Jarvis and Bill Miller, John Moritz, Tony Spangler, Lamor Williams; Alex Friedrich, Aron Kahn, Eric Frazier, Audra D.S. Burch, Katherine Corcoran, Susana Hayward, Drew Brown and Kevin G. Hall.

Hurricane Rita Powers Into Louisiana on Texas Border 

Sept. 24, 2005  (Bloomberg) -- Hurricane Rita swept ashore in Louisiana, just east of the Texas border, with sustained winds of 120 miles per hour, pushing a storm surge as high as 20 feet into coastal communities.

Rita's center struck land at about 2:30 a.m., 5 miles east of Sabine Pass on the state border, Colin McAdie, a meteorologist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center, said in a telephone interview from Miami. The storm was near Port Arthur, Texas, at 4 a.m. local time and was moving northwest at 12 mph (19 kph.)

As many as 3 million people in the two states were ordered to flee the storm's path, jamming highways out of Houston. While insurance companies may face claims as high as $18 billion, according to storm modeler Eqecat Inc., the oil-refining centers around Houston and Galveston were spared the worst of Rita's damage. Crude and gasoline prices fell yesterday.

``Anything that's sticking out of the surface of the earth is going to be hammered by these winds,'' Lieutenant Dave Roberts, a meteorologist at the Hurricane Center, said today in a telephone interview. ``The major problem is going to be the storm surge. We're going to see major flooding, pretty close to what we had with Katrina.''

Hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana on Aug. 29, submerging New Orleans and flattening towns including Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi. The storm killed more than 1,000 people in those states and Alabama and Florida, and led to insured damage as high as $60 billion, the costliest U.S. natural disaster.

Storm Surge

Louisiana's Cameron and Jackson parishes and the area around Port Arthur will probably bear the brunt of Rita's storm surge, forecast by the Hurricane Center to exceed 15 feet (5 meters), reaching 20 feet at the heads of rivers and bays, Roberts said.

Rita, at one point a maximum Category 5 storm on the Saffir- Simpson scale, is still a ``dangerous'' Category 3 storm, the center said. The hurricane-force winds, defined as at least 74 mph, stretch 85 miles (137 kilometers) from Rita's eye and are battering a swathe of coastal Texas and Louisiana, with the power to damage buildings, destroy mobile homes and blow down trees.

Storm damage led to fires in buildings in Galveston and Houston, Cable News Network footage showed.

The hurricane's rain yesterday led to breaches in New Orleans's patched-up levees, causing waist-deep flooding in the 9th Ward district. Loss of life in New Orleans wasn't a danger because the city was evacuated after Hurricane Katrina. Still, the floods are bad for morale, said Sergeant Nicholas Stahl of the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

New Orleans Floods

``The waters have been coming back into the city, so we're going to have to fix the levees again and start pumping,'' Stahl said in a telephone interview from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. ``We're back to where we started as far as the cleanup goes.''

Gasoline and oil fell yesterday as Rita veered away from production centers near Houston and Galveston that account for about 12 percent of U.S. refining capacity. Gasoline for October delivery closed down 5.38 cents, or 2.5 percent, at $2.0856 a gallon on the New York Mercantile Exchange. That's still an increase of 7 percent for the week.

Crude oil for November delivery was down $2.31, or 3.5 percent, to $64.19 a barrel on the Nymex, leaving the price up 1.9 percent on the week. Both gasoline and oil touched records at the end of August after Katrina's passage.

Texas Path

The storm is forecast to move inland over southeastern Texas today, taking it past Beaumont and Port Arthur in Texas, where oil companies including Valero Energy Corp., have refineries. As Rita slows down over land, more than 25 inches (64 centimeters) of rainfall is forecast by the hurricane center in areas of eastern Texas and western Louisiana.

``The coastal plain by the state border is fairly shallow, and when that much water comes down, it creates real flooding,'' David Vaughan, a spokesman for the Texas Emergency Operations Center, said today in a telephone interview from Austin. ``The closer towns are to the coast, the more water they're going to get flowing into them from upriver,'' he said, identifying the Sabine and Trinity rivers as likely to flood.

``Beaumont in particular is very low, just above sea level,'' Vaughan said. ``There are a lot of petrochemical plants, a lot of refineries in that area, and we're particularly concerned about them.''

Evacuation orders in Texas and Louisiana created gridlock on highways yesterday and caused Rita's first indirect casualties when a bus carrying elderly evacuees burst into flames outside Dallas yesterday, killing 24 passengers.

``All our roads have cleared up substantially, and people are ready to bunker in and let the storm pass,'' said Randall Dillard, a spokesman at the Texas Department of Transportation. ``At this point, it's better to be off the road and find shelter.''

To contact the reporter on this story:
Alex Morales in London at
Last Updated: September 24, 2005 06:35 EDT

Hurricane Slams Into Gulf Coast; Flooding Begins

BEAUMONT, Tex., - 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.


Relief as Rita spares lives, refineries

By Allan Dowd 36 minutes ago

LAKE CHARLES, Louisiana (Reuters) - Rescue teams hunted for people stranded in Louisiana's flooded Cajun country on Sunday, but officials expressed relief there was no major loss of life and that Hurricane Rita had largely spared the region's huge refineries.

The storm skimmed Houston, heart of the U.S. oil industry, when it slammed into the swampy Texas-Louisiana border on Saturday, but wind, pounding rain and surging floodwater badly damaged small cities and remote towns to the east.

Police, National Guard troops and an array of other rescue workers arrived quickly after the storm and there was no repeat of the shocking scenes of crime and chaos that besieged New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck less than a month ago.

"It appears the refining industry, the oil and gas industry (suffered) a glancing blow at worst. Hopefully they'll be back in production very soon," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said on CNN.

He urged the nearly 3 million evacuees to "stay put" until water and sewage systems were checked out.

Rescuers renewed efforts to find some 80 people stranded in Abbeville, Pecan Island and Vermilion Bay, the U.S. Coast Guard said. Their task was made difficult by tropical storm force winds, low visibility and heavy rain.

Worries not only about property loss and the fate of family and friends but concerns about livestock drew several residents back, who then became trapped in storm surges.

In southern Louisiana, home to the French-speaking Cajun community and culture, some people clung to rooftops and oil tanks in water up to nine feet deep.

"We need to pray to the good lord to switch the wind's direction," Vermilion Parish Sheriff Mike Couvillan said.


Flood waters stood at up to 3 feet (1 meter) in Lake Charles, Louisiana, federal officials said.

Rita's storm surge was measured at 15-feet (4.5-metres). Couvillan said it reached his own ranch 35 miles inland and he feared all 80 of his cattle had been killed.

Most of the 1.4 million people along the southern Louisiana coast fled and were unlikely to be able to return for weeks. Shaken survivors found destroyed buildings, debris-strewn streets, downed power lines and toppled trees.

Rita had dumped up to a foot of rain and lashed the region with 120 mile per hour (192 kph) winds.

Worries arose over a natural gas installation in Louisiana known as Henry Hub, through which a third of U.S. natural gas flows and where spot gas prices are determined. Sabine Pipeline LLC denied report of a leak at the natural gas pipeline.

Rita and Katrina knocked out nearly all energy production in the offshore fields of the Gulf of Mexico and 30 percent of U.S. refining capacity onshore. Rita damaged at least three oil refineries, oil companies said.

George W. Bush was slated to meet in Baton Rouge on Sunday with Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who took an early morning aerial tour of the coast, officials said.

Rita cut power to more than 2 million people in Texas and Louisiana. Utility companies said it could take a month to fully restore electricity.


Preliminary figures showed Rita caused estimated damage of more than $8 billion, the Texas governor said on CNN.

Hurricane Katrina, which hit Mississippi and Louisiana, and left New Orleans in ruins, caused up to $60 billion in insured damages alone.

In Washington, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain  called for cuts in so-called pork-barrel spending to help pay for hurricane clean-up and disaster preparations.

"Can't we sacrifice one bike path, one horse trail, one bridge to nowhere?," he said, speaking on ABC's "This Week."

"The American people right now are sacrificing as we speak," he said. "They doing everything they can to help and in Washington, it's business as usual."

Texas Gov. Perry said he expected the federal government to "pay fully the cost of this."

Katrina killed more than a thousand people, but there was only one death directly related to Rita -- a person killed by a tornado in Belzoni, Mississippi. Twenty-three people also died in a bus that caught fire during the massive evacuation.

In New Orleans, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers worked to plug levees fractured by Katrina. But parts of the mostly empty city were again covered by up to 12 feet of water.

Vice Adm. Thad Allen, head of the federal Katrina recovery efforts, said it could take until June to rebuild the levees.

"We should be eternally worried until the levee structure has been repaired to pre-Katrina heights, and then the final decisions on what that levee system needs to be to create the boundary conditions for a new city of New Orleans," he said on CNN's "Late Edition."

(Additional reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst and Michael Christie in Baton Rouge, Jeff Franks in Houston, Andy Sullivan in New Orleans, Kenneth Li in Beaumont and Daisuke Wakabayashi in Austin

updated 9-19-05 - HURRICANE SEASON OF 2005 - PAGE 3

Lots of rain but no deaths reported due to the storm.

updated 10-5-05 - HURRICANE SEASON OF 2005 - PAGE 2

updated 8-11-05 - HURRICANE SEASON of 2005-PAGE 1
10 dead in Cuba - 15 Dead in Haiti


4 die in JAMAICA