Hurricane Rita closed in on the Texas Gulf Coast and the heart of the US oil-refining industry with howling 145 mph winds, but a sharper-than-expected turn to the right set it on a course that could spare Houston and nearby Galveston a direct hit.
The storm’s march toward land yesterday sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the USA’s fourth-largest city in a frustratingly slow, bumper-to-bumper exodus.
“This is the worst planning I’ve ever seen,” said Judie Anderson, who covered just 45 miles in 12 hours after setting out from her home in the Houston suburb of LaPorte. “They say we’ve learned a lot from Hurricane Katrina. Well, you couldn’t prove it by me.”
In all, nearly two million people along the Texas and Louisiana coasts were urged to get out of the way of Rita, a 400-mile-wide storm that weakened yesterday from a top-of-the-scale Category 5 hurricane to a Category 4 as it swirled across the Gulf of Mexico.
The storm’s course change could send it away from Houston and Galveston and instead draw the hurricane toward Port Arthur, Texas, or Lake Charles, Louisiana, at least 60 miles up the coast, by later today or early tomorrow.
But it was still an extremely dangerous storm – and one aimed at a section of coastline with a large concentration of oil refineries. Environmentalists warned of the possibility of a toxic spill from the 87 chemical plants and petroleum installations that represent more than a quarter of US refining capacity.
Rita also brought rain to already battered New Orleans, raising fears that the city’s Katrina-damaged levees would fail and flood the city all over again.
Late yesterday, the storm shifted slightly to the west, toward Texas, but the National Hurricane Centre still predicted it would make landfall somewhere along a 350-mile stretch of the Texas and Louisiana coastline.
Meteorologist Chris Sisko said hurricane specialists were carefully monitoring the hurricane’s “wobble” to determine whether it could indicate a change in direction.
Late last night, Rita was centred about 350 miles south-east of Galveston and was moving at 10 mph. Its winds were 140 mph, down from 175 mph (282 kph) earlier in the day.
Forecasters predicted the storm would make a gradual turn to the north-west Friday before coming ashore somewhere along a 350-mile stretch of the Texas and Louisiana coast that includes Port Arthur near the midpoint.
Forecasters warned of the possibility of a storm surge of 15 to 20 feet, battering waves, and rain of up to 15 inches along the Texas and western Louisiana coast.
The evacuation was a traffic nightmare, with red brakelights streaming out of Houston and its low-lying suburbs as far as the eye could see. Highways leading inland out of Houston, a metropolitan area of four million people about an hour’s drive from the shore, were clogged for up to 100 miles north of the city.
Drivers ran out of fuel in 14-hour traffic jams or looked in vain for a place to stay as hotels filled up all the way to the Oklahoma and Arkansas state line. Others got tired of waiting in traffic and turned around and went home.
State officials hoped to transport more than 200,000 gallons of petrol to service stations that reported running out of fuel. Police officers and National Guard trucks carried petrol to motorists whose tanks were on empty.
By late yesterday, the traffic bottlenecks were improving, with congestion easing on many major arteries leaving Houston, said Robert Black, spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry.
The traffic jam extended well into Louisiana, with Interstate 10 jammed from Lake Charles through Baton Rouge. State police said the biggest backups were at exits where cars stacked up in long lines of motorists trying to get fuel.