Hurricane Rita roared toward the Texas and Louisiana coasts early today, a major Category 4 storm that spurred a traffic-snarled exodus toward higher ground and fears it could cripple the heart of the US petrochemical industry.
Forecasters said it appeared Houston and Galveston could avoid a direct hit as Rita veered slightly to the east, threatening its 140-mph winds at the Beaumont and Port Arthur area about 75 miles east of Houston.
The unprecedented flight from the flood-prone Houston area left clogged roads at a near standstill, frustrating hundreds of thousands of people whose cars and tempers were overheating.
“It can’t get much worse, 100 yards an hour,” steamed Willie Bayer, 70, who was heading out of Houston and trying to get to Sulphur Springs in far north-east Texas. “It’s frustrating bumper-to-bumper.”
State officials scrambled to reroute several inbound highways to accommodate outbound traffic, but many people were waiting so long they ran out of fuel 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 petrol. The state was also working to get more than 200,000 gallons of petrol to fuel-starved stations in the Houston area.
By late last 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”.
Nearly two million people along the Texas and Louisiana coasts were urged to get out of the way of Rita, a storm that weakened yesterday from a top-of-the-scale Category 5 hurricane.
“Hopefully, we will get lucky and it goes into a part of Texas or Louisiana where there is not many people or any buildings,” said Houston businessman Tillman Fertitta.
The first rain bands were expected before nightfall today with the full fury of Rita expected early tomorrow. 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.
At 2am (7am Irish time), Rita was centred about 325 miles south-east of Galveston and was moving to the west-north-west at 10 mph. Its winds were 140 mph, down from 175 mph earlier in the day.
Hurricane warnings were in effect from Port O’Connor, Texas, to Morgan City, Louisiana, and the National Hurricane Centre IN Miami forecast the storm would make landfall as a “dangerous hurricane of at least Category 3 intensity”.
Tropical storm warnings also were in effect east and north to include New Orleans, still crippled by Hurricane Katrina. Rita’s steady rains yesterday were the first since Katrina and 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 neighbourhoods.
“Hurricane Rita is a very dangerous storm,” said New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. “We’re not letting our guard down.”
The Army Corps of Engineers added sandbags to shore up New Orleans’ levees and installed 60-foot sections of metal across some of the city’s canals to protect against storm surges.
About 5,000 soldiers and National Guard members remain in the city, along with about 1,400 police officers, Nagin said. “We should be in pretty good shape from a law enforcement standpoint as we move forward.”
Oliver Lucius left New Orleans with his family after Katrina and was beginning to build a life with his sister, Cyndi DeCuire, in Corpus Christi. He and his wife had found jobs and their children were enrolled in local schools.
Then came Rita, and they were all forced to flee.
“We were pulling out all the stops to help our family, and now I’m an evacuee,” DeCuire said yesterday, shaking her head while sitting on a cot in a shelter at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
The Texas and Louisiana coast is home to the nation’s biggest 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.
Petrochemical plants began shutting and hundreds of workers were evacuated from offshore oil rigs. Texas Governor Rick Perry said state officials had been in contact with plants that were “taking appropriate procedures to safeguard their facilities”.
The usually bustling tourist island of Galveston – rebuilt after as many as 12,000 people died in a 1900 hurricane – was all but abandoned, with at least 90 per cent of its 58,000 residents cleared out.
At Houston’s Johnson Space Centre, Nasa evacuated its staff, powered down the computers at Mission Control and turned the international space station over to the Russian space agency.
In south-western Louisiana, up to 500,000 residents along the state’s south-west coast were urged to evacuate and state officials planned to send in buses to take refugees.
The US mainland has not been hit by two Category 4 storms in the same year since 1915. Katrina came ashore on August 29 as a Category 4 hurricane.