A Weakened But Deadly Rita Slams Into Gulf Coast UPDATED
According to CNN, Rita has now become a Category 2 storm (winds 96-110 mph). And right now predictions are that the storm’s force will be slowing down over the next 24 hours.
BEAUMONT, Texas – Hurricane Rita plowed into the Gulf Coast early Saturday, lashing Texas and Louisiana with driving rain, threatening to flood low-lying regions and knocking power out to half a million people as transformers exploded in the pre-dawn sky.
Rita made landfall at 3:30 a.m. EDT as a Category 3 storm just east of Sabine Pass, on the Texas-Louisiana line, bringing a 20-foot storm surge and up to 25 inches of rain, the National Hurricane Center said. Within four hours it had weakened to a Category 2 storm, with top winds of 100 mph, as it moved farther inland.
Residents in hard-hit western Louisiana called police early Saturday to report roofs being ripped off and downed trees. Rescuers were forced to wait until the winds outside died down to safe levels.
â€œWe canâ€™t even get out to check yet,â€? said Sgt. Wendell Carroll of Louisianaâ€™s Calcasieu Parish Sheriffâ€™s Office. â€œAll we can hear is the wind aâ€™ howling.â€?
The storm spun off tornadoes as it churned northwest at 12 mph with winds that topped 120 mph, causing transformers to explode in the pre-dawn darkness. Four counties in southeast Texas were under a tornado warning early Saturday.
In Jasper County, north of Beaumont, a house with seven people inside floated in floodwaters after it came off its foundation, said sheriffâ€™s communications supervisor Alice Duckworth.
And New Orleans? Can you say it was spared? Not quite:
NEW ORLEANS – New Orleans was under water again Saturday as Hurricane Ritaâ€™s storm surge cascaded over the cityâ€™s patched levees, just days after already-devastated neighborhoods had been pumped dry.
Floodwaters were pooling along areas that were slammed by Hurricane Katrina last month and have been all but abandoned ever since. The water covered piles of rubble and mud-caked cars, rising swiftly to the top of first-floor windows.
â€œItâ€™s like looking at a murder,â€? Quentrell Jefferson of the Ninth Ward said Friday as he watched news of the flooding at a church in Lafayette, 125 miles west of New Orleans. â€œThe first time is bad. After that, you numb up.â€?
Still, as the Washington Post reports, so far, amid the individual tales of disaster and destruction, there is a guarded sense that this storm could have been far worse:
Damage reports were scarce at daybreak. But officials said the heavily populated area from Houston to Galveston was in relatively good shape, with blown-out windows in some highrise buildings, widespread power outages, limited flooding and fires in Galveston being the major issue.
Towns hit more heavily, according to first accounts, included Beaumont, Lumberton and Port Arthur in Texas and the area around Lake Charles in Louisiana.
Authorities stressed that Rita was continuing to rage, however, in this region’s season of epic weather woe.
And late Friday another storm-related enemy emerged…Fire, as the New York Times reports:
Wind from Hurricane Rita whipped up dramatic fires in this city’s historic Strand District and parts of Houston, sending out swirls of sparkling embers even as rain poured down in sheets.
One building was nearly destroyed in Galveston; two others appeared heavily damaged. A burning electric pole was lying on one of the buildings.
”It was like a war zone, shooting fire across the street,” Fire Chief Michael Varela said early Saturday.
No injuries were immediately reported in either city, which were virtual ghost towns because most residents had heeded calls to evacuate. Rita made landfall more than 100 miles away early Saturday along the Texas-Louisiana line.
One of the buildings that caught fire in Galveston was built in 1905, five years after the hurricane that destroyed most of this island city and killed at least 6,000 people. The damaged buildings were a bail bonds company, a Victorian-era home, and Eagle Lodge, a former fraternal club that’s now an art gallery.
Varela said one person escaped the fire, but he didn’t know the person’s identity or condition. Officials at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston did not respond to requests for information about the person who escaped.
The Strand District includes historic buildings, night clubs and shops. It is the site of a massive Mardi Gras celebration and an annual Charles Dickens festival.
Several fires also were burning in and around Houston, including an apartment complex. In Pasadena, south of Houston, a Dollar General store was nearly engulfed in flames, Mike Baird of the Pasadena Police Department told KTRK-TV in Houston.
Despite the fires, officials were relieved that Rita spared the flood-prone cities a direct hit. Galveston initially had been at the center of forecasters’ fears as Rita churned in the Gulf of Mexico. Authorities worried a high storm surge could overwhelm seawalls and submerge the island city.
”It looks like the Houston and Galveston area has really lucked out,” said Max Mayfield, director of the hurricane center.
The bottom line so far seems to be this: all three levels of government were better prepared for this storm, as they anticipated the worst and made preparations — which isn’t to say that questions about efficiency problems won’t still be asked after the storm clears away, as this Knight-Ridder report notes:
FORT WORTH, Texas â€” For hundreds of thousands of motorists trying to flee Hurricane Rita, the evacuation became a nightmare.
The question for officials in Texas is whether the ordeal had to be as bad as it was.
One man in a Huntsville shelter said yesterday that it took him three days to get there from Dickinson, southeast of Houston â€” a distance of about 90 miles.
Others, such as Leah Laing and her 2-year-old daughter in Beaumont, didn’t even try to leave after they heard news reports about the snarled highways.
“We felt it was safer here than on the roads,” Laing said.
In the end, about 2.5 million people evacuated from the Texas coast, mostly from the Houston-Galveston area, officials said.
The parallels between Katrina and Rita are far from absolute. Many evacuations in New Orleans were carried out long after the storm, after the levees broke and the city flooded. This time, rescue crews worked feverishly to evacuate everyone willing to leave ahead of the storm.
But the evacuations again brought mayhem and anguish.
For many who were trapped Wednesday and Thursday on Interstate 45 between Houston and Dallas, the questions included why the nearly-empty southbound lanes weren’t opened sooner to northbound traffic.
The practice, called contraflow, didn’t begin until Thursday morning. Traffic on the highway was jammed starting Wednesday.
Randall Dillard of the Texas Department of Transportation said the agency must wait to act until it receives an order from the governor’s office.
Gov. Rick Perry said yesterday that the decision was made as soon as local officials requested. He declined to second-guess the timing.
“It will be almost miraculous that this many people were moved out of harm’s way,” Perry said.
But one highway expert said the delay in converting the freeway to one-way lanes shows that Texas’ emergency response officials had only partly thought through their worst-case scenario for evacuating the Houston area.
This is all part of a fine-tuning of disaster preparedness that is useful and critical so that next time around (a storm or terrorist attack) responses are honed and fined tuned. Indeed, in Texas some damage assessment was already away — amid warnings not to make any firm pronouncements yet, according to the Houston Chronicle:
Damage assessments from Hurricane Rita began early today as dawn broke over the storm-tossed areas of the Texas-Louisiana border.
“It’s too early to say Texas totally dodged the bullet,” said Kathy Walt, spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry. “We haven’t seen what kind of flooding there might be.”
Steve McCraw, state director of homeland security, said there are two Southeast Texas counties without electricity and four without wireless telephone service. He said that is making it difficult to know the extent of hurricane damage.
“We don’t have the communications we would want with our county elected officials, mayors, county judges and local law enforcement and firefighters simply because communications are down,” McCraw said.
McCraw said there were no early reports of loss of life associated with the hurricane’s landfall.
That’s an early too-early-to-tell figure but if there is a low death toll it will most certainly be hailed as a significant government-preparedness achievement.
Meanwhile, some local residents continue to share with the world their experiences throught their weblogs (these are EXCERPTS so read them in full):
–In a MUST READ IN FULL post journalist Ron Franscell, managing editor of the local paper in storm hit Beaumont, Texas, writes:
The squalls have arrived. Winds are steadily increasing, the lights flicker occasionally, rain drums an incessant bass line against the masonry skin of our building, the windows bulge with every gust, a transformer on the corner detonates in a shower of sparks … and we’re only in the tune-up. The prelude comes in a few hours, and the violent first movement a few hours after that.
We have taken a head count and everyone is safe. Now that night has fallen, we can take stock and plan, to some degree, the next move. As stories are filed, they are edited and quickly posted at our Web site and sent to our shadow desk in Houston for the paper-newspaper that will come out tomorrow just hours after Rita makes landfall. We shifted our normal morning cycle to midday so the newspaper could contain some of the first daylight images of Rita’s wrath.
Galveston’s electricity has been dead more than an hour, but we’re still on here. We’ve adopted the rhythms of impending calamity, like a guy with exactly 12 minutes to live. We get a series of little shots to get this right, and each one presents a new challenge. We are one a short runway and there’s no scrubbing the take-off.
Tonight, a Time Magazine reporter asked me if I was afraid. I am, a little. But it’s more a tool than a handicap. It’s how I know I haven’t lapsed into a mechanical existence. It’s the pulse of my survival instinct. And it’s not always a fear of the things I can’t control; it is also a fear of failing at the things I can control.
—Smoke On The Water (also TX):
Having helped to prepare my host’s home with plenty of duct tape on the glass, the removal of loose items from the yard and the securing of some seriously pissed-off outside cats in to carriers in the garage, we decided to see what it looked like in town.
A ten mile drive later, Dayton lay bare, evoking images of a ghost town from the big screen. But this was no fantasy. This is the reality of a population laying low, wary, ready. But still, some pockets of life were to be seen. The two police cars parked left side to left side, the officer’s doors exactly opposite, so they could converse easily, neither having to unsaddle from their crusers. A small cluster of people operating the Coke machines and the herd of cars at the three open-for-business bars we passed…..
Returning to the strong brick house which is their home, and my shelter, the fortelling of what is to come can be seen in the sky. Clouds scudding low across the sky at dazzling speed, yet the wind on the ground is at most, twenty miles per hour or so.
Like the misleading caress of a lover who who is destined to betray, Rita gently touches the trees and overhead lines; ordinarily a most soothing and mellow kind of day.
Behind that gentleness though, roars the mouth of the dragon, and this way she soon flies.
UPDATE I: More local blog reaction:
Looks like we missed the brunt of the storm at the last moment. It turned towards Sabine Pass and the eye made landfall 5 miles east of the pass. Todd’s hometown, Port Arthur, has taken a beating all night long with wind gusts up to 116 miles per hour, I believe. Todd is already setting up a site to help the people surrounding Sabine pass with resources after the storm. Good job, Todd. I hope his family’s home is okay, though it is very near the water. I am sure glad his mom got the heck out of there! Posting this before I lose power. My brother is a few miles away and is without power. The lights keep blinking on and off here. The Woodlands has received a little rain. 3/4 inch has made it into the rain gage. Nothing compared with the projected 24 inches predicted for areas getting the bad end of the storm. Though, with the wind, that is not very accurate. Stay safe everyone!!!
–A HIGHLY COMPELLING evacuation post at the Lone Star Times here. We’d ruin it if we try to quote from it — so read it all yasself..
—Hurricane Rita: “Hurricane Rita from this day forward you will be named Hurricane PITA (Pain In the Ass), you huffed and puffed in all your Cat 5 glory out in the gulf but you just turned out to be an annoyance, yes you caused some damage but so does a two year old when they throw a temper tantrum.”—The People’s Republic of Seabrook (TX):
We survived! We lived through Rita and weâ€™re back home to a house with NO damage. Itâ€™s been a long couple of days. There will be plenty of time in the future to point out the utter helplessness of our local government (and believe me, Iâ€™ll rant about that in due time) but for now Iâ€™m going to crank down the A/C and sit on the couch.
I donâ€™t know too much about Seabrook, but Clear Lake in general seemed to have fared pretty well. Downtown Houston had a lot of missing billboards, but that seemed to be about it. League City has a lot of missing fence planks and a few downed trees, but other than that, it doesnâ€™t seem that much worse for the wear.
UPDATE II: Roundup Links That You Should Check Back All Day
–Glenn Reynolds aka InstaPundit is starting some links on the latest.
–Michelle Malkin is starting another one of her extensive roundups here. (check back to it all day).
UPDATE III: Engineers in New Orleans are working feverishly to stop more floodded in the city that was previously decinated by Hurricane Katrina, the AP reports:
Storm water pushed by Hurricane Rita poured into New Orleans for a second day Saturday, and engineers said they need at least two days to pump water from the most heavily flooded neighborhoods after they plug a series of levee breaches.
“The surge got higher than we expected in the canal,” said Dan Hitchings, an engineer overseeing recovery operations for the Army Corps of Engineers. “It’s still spilling in there this morning.”
The corps planned to drop sand bags and boulders into several large gaps that appeared Friday in a part of the Industrial Canal levee that had been patched after Hurricane Katrina. Rita’s storm surges eroded part of the levee, sending water rushing into the city’s Ninth Ward neighborhood, which already was badly damaged and mostly abandoned.