Howlin' Hurricane Rita

At 11am Friday, Rita was downgraded to a Category Three storm by the National Hurricane Center. Just offshore Texas and Louisiana in the Gulf Coast, Rita is predicted to make landfall early Saturday morning. Federal, state and local agencies have been taking the threat of the storm much more seriously than they did Katrina, so millions are currently being evacuated from Southeast Texas and Louisiana.

Below is a roundup of the latest news from national and local sources, as well as first-person commentary from bloggers and AlterNet readers.

From EmergencyEmail.org:


At 1pm CDT ... The center of Hurricane Rita was located about 190 miles southeast of Galveston, Tex., and about 175 miles southeast of Port Arthur, Tex.
Rita is moving toward the northwest near 10 mph and is expected to continue during the next 24 hours. The core of Rita will make landfall near the southwest Louisiana and Upper Texas coasts early Saturday.
Maximum sustained winds have decreased to near 125 mpg with higher gusts. Rita is now a Category Three hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale. A further slow weakening is possible before landfall, but Rita is still expected to come ashore as a dangerous hurricane.
New Waves of Damage to Louisiana

The first effects of Rita have begun to hit Louisiana already. Areas of New Orleans that were completely devastated by Hurricane Katrina have flooded again:
Hurricane Rita's steady rains sent water pouring over a patched levee Friday, cascading into one of the city's lowest-lying neighborhoods in a devastating repeat of New Orleans' flooding nightmare.
"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," he said. "At daybreak I found substantial breaks and they've grown larger."
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. On the street that runs parallel to the canal, the water ran waist-deep and was rising fast. Guidry said water was rising about three inches a minute.
Water also poured out from under the canal's western barrier, which faces the historic French Quarter roughly three miles away.
An official with the New Orleans Fire Department said flooding reached a mile inland west of the canal. It also reached as far north as Interstate 10, which divides the city.
The impoverished Ninth Ward was one of the areas of the city hit hardest by Katrina's floodwaters and finally had been pumped dry before Hurricane Rita struck.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune has a series of stories about the hurricane, including:
  • A "five-day struggle" by guards at Orleans Parish Prison to keep desperate inmates at bay as the hurricane struck New Orleans;


  • The repeated uprooting of 3,000 Katrina victims from Calcasieu Parish to Alexandria;


  • And also the deep disconnect between what President Bush was saying in his press conference and what is happening among his constituents.


Texas News

The San Antonio Express-News covers yesterday's horrendous traffic jam:
With Hurricane Rita roaring in from the Gulf of Mexico, many of the Houston area's 4.7 million residents bailed out Thursday, creating bumper-to-bumper congestion that stretched up to 100 miles.
"I don't think there's much question. I believe this is the largest traffic jam we've ever had in Texas," said Mark Cross, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation.
An estimated 1.8 million people in Texas and Louisiana have been told to evacuate.
To accommodate the unprecedented exodus from Houston, officials opened all lanes on Interstate 10 to evacuating motorists as far west as Seguin and all lanes for northbound motorists on Interstate 45.
Even so, motorists endured 15-hour trips from Houston to San Antonio and Dallas. [Respectively 189 and 224 miles, as the crow flies -- ed.]
The San Antonio Express-News is covering the first wave of Rita evacuees pouring into the city:
The scene at KellyUSA is starting to look like re-runs to Red Cross volunteers and local officials as hurricane evacuees again pour into San Antonio. More than 13,000 people have already been processed by the Red Cross as they sought shelter escaping the Texas coastal towns and Houston in anticipation of Hurricane Rita's arrival early Saturday morning.
The difference in the landscape today versus that of three weeks ago is the sea of personal cars parked at the shelters as evacuees arrive in the Alamo City via bus, plane and personal car. [...]
Evacuees are being supplied with new cots, after the shelter was turned over after serving Katrina evacuees, and the temporary facilities have been removed. Permanent shower and laundry facilities are up and running. [...]
Officials reported that 10 planes have already delivered as many as 2,000 people from Beaumont in addition to the people arriving by car.
The AP has a report about the bus fire that killed as many as 24 seniors as they were evacuating:
The bus was carrying 38 residents and six employees of the Brighton Gardens nursing home in Bellaire, according to Sunrise Senior Living, the McLean, Va., company that owns the center. The bus was en route to another home owned by the same company, according to a Baylor University Medical Center spokeswoman.
Early indications were that the bus caught fire because of mechanical problems, then passengers' oxygen tanks started exploding, Peritz said. He said the brakes may have been on fire. The bus was engulfed with flames, causing a lengthy backup on Interstate 45 already congested with evacuees from the Gulf Coast.
On the Blogging Front

In AlterNet's comments sections, reader Pepper writes from Austin that "It took my relatives 21 hours to drive 200 miles from Texas City to Austin. THe Austin grocery stores have sold out of bottled water and bread, even though we are up in the Hill Country some 200 miles inland."

And Spyder adds:
The big story of Rita will be the evacuation of Houston and the traffic debacle. I have seen the mass hysteria more than 200 miles from the Texas coast. At 10 p.m. last night the Wal-mart Super Center in Marble Falls was in a state of shock. The eggs, bread, and bananas had been totally cleared out, and the frozen food department had been greatly diminished. All this foodstuff pillaging had occured just hours earlier. The staff had aisles blocked with pallets of food they were frantically restocking, but no eggs, bread, or bananas were present. The punch line is that we might have a 20-30% chance of rain out here in the Texas Hill Country!
The Houston Chronicle has set up a citizen-journalist blog called Stormwatchers. Lots of Houston residents are commenting on the calm before the storm hits.

RichardB writes:
It's very quiet in the neighborhood. Barbara gestured me out onto the patio after dinner and said, "Listen." I smiled - no traffic noises anywhere.
For those who are inclined to rail against "the government," especially about the failure to provide gasoline for the long lines of evacuees on the highways yesterday, I offer a counterpoint: Houston and Harris County have done as excellent a job as they can. No plan survives contact with the enemy, sayeth the old military epigram. In this case, the "enemy" is a major threat to the fourth largest city in America...Rita. We learned from Katrina - and now we have more lessons to absorb.
Jay Lee is writing from Houston for the Chronicle's Stormwatchers blog. He's got pictures of supermarkets stripped bare by desparate shoppers. He writes:
I moved on to Kroger. For those that have e-mailed me asking how many people I thought were sticking around the west side rather than fleeing the city have a look at the nearly full parking lot -- I could not park anywhere close the front.
Inside it was a madhouse. I needed a nine volt battery to replace the one in the garage door opener. I literally got the last one. Plenty of camera batteries and a few AAA's if you are looking. No dairy products to speak of. Canned meats mostly gone, same for the peanut butter
Interestingly enough, plenty of baking supplies. I got the flour and the brown sugar. There's plenty more at Kroger if you need some.
On the Chronicle's SciGuy blog, Eric Berger takes on what went wrong with the evacuation:
The situation on the freeways, principally I-10 approaching San Antonio, Hwy 290 approaching Austin and I-45 approaching Dallas, is abhorrent. [...]
Has the media over-hyped the storm? Some have, no doubt. There was some talk about Rita making landfall as a category-5, and I don't think that was really based in reality. However, if Rita weakens and misses Houston, there will undoubtedly be blame placed on us. Some is probably deserved, but a lot of the blame, considering conditions earlier in the week when people were making their decisions to evacuate, simply doesn't apply.
Can you blame people for panicking in the wake of Katrina? Not really. However, I have heard reports of people from north and west Houston evacuating to other parts of the state, or beyond, because they feared they might lose power for a couple of days. I'm not sure those people should have left their homes.
The problems with the evacuation can no doubt be explained in part by the 2.7 million residents that evacuated the Houston/Galveston area. According to Anne Linehan at BlogHouston, "That's half the population of Galveston/Houston/Harris County."

Kevin Whited, also writing on BlogHouston.net, got a phone call from scammers apparently trying to raise money as the hurricane approached:
I just got a call on my home phone line from a solicitor with the Texas Department of Public Safety.
The fellow asked me if I was still in the Houston area, and if I knew how important it was to support the Texas DPS.
My exact response was, "Dude, are you aware the Houston area is under hurricane evacuation?"
He was, but that didn't seem to slow down his rebuttal or ongoing efforts at solicitation.
[More here about the fraudsters.]

Readers, please use the comments to give updates on breaking news for the storm. We'll try and keep this story as current as possible, but we need your help.

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