Hurricane Rita Blasts Across Gulf Headed for Texas

HOUSTON, Texas, September 22, 2005 (ENS) - At least one million people were ordered to evacuate Texas and Louisiana coastal areas immediately as Hurricane Rita picked up speed and power Wednesday. Now classed as a Category 5, the most intense class of storm, Rita's winds are whistling along at 175 miles per hour. Rita is forecast to make landfall between Matagorda and Galveston early Saturday as a major hurricane.

If Rita makes a turn to the east, the ruins of New Orleans could get hit again, breaking fragile repairs to the city's hurricane levees made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after Hurricane Katrina damaged the protective walls on August 29.

More than 1,000 people are now estimated to have died as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, including some who have been living in shelters in Texas. Now they must move again ahead of Hurricane Rita.

Mayor Ray Nagin Tuesday ordered all remaining New Orleans city residents to leave ahead of this latest threatening storm.

Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas declared a state of emergency on Tuesday. All of Galveston, which is located on an island, as well as vulnerable sections of Houston and Corpus Christi are under mandatory evacuation orders.

Galveston

The city of Galveston, Texas, with the Gulf of Mexico in the background, is right in the path of oncoming Hurricane Rita. (Photo by Marge Beaver courtesy NOAA)
Forewarned by the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina three weeks ago, people began streaming inland on Wednesday.

President George W. Bush is urging people along the Gulf Coast to follow evacuation orders. "Federal, state, and local governments are coordinating their efforts to get ready," he said. "Mandatory evacuations have been ordered for New Orleans and Galveston. I urge the citizens to listen carefully to the instructions provided by state and local authorities and follow them."

"We hope and pray that Hurricane Rita will not be a devastating storm, but we've got to be ready for the worst," said President Bush, a former governor of Texas.

The Galveston County Office of Emergency Management issued two “First Call” telephone notifications early this morning to the county’s unincorporated areas seeking individuals who still may need assistance escaping from Hurricane Rita’s wrath.

With the powerful storm projected to make landfall Saturday along the Upper Texas Coast, the Office of Emergency Management used the First Call alert system to rapidly help identify citizens who have not yet evacuated and may need transportation to do so.

A First Call message to Bolivar Peninsula went to thousands of telephones in minutes, and delivered a recorded message asking residents to press “1” if they need help to evacuate, and “2” if they do not. The system also directed those who retrieved the call from an answering machine to the Office of Emergency Management for further assistance.

The Texas Department of Transportation suspended ferry service between Galveston Island and Port Bolivar late last night.

Rita

Hurricane Rita has strengthened over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and is now a Category 5 storm. (Image courtesy NOAA)
A First Call message also was sent to Bacliff area residents, offering buses out of the area later today. Once weather conditions deteriorate, first responders will not be able to rescue citizens who choose to stay, and no shelters will be opened in Galveston County, the agency said. Galveston island has no land much more than two-metres above water level.

In the low-lying city of Houston, Mayor Bill White and Harris County Judge Robert Eckels Wednesday issued a voluntary evacuation order for people living in flood-prone areas, storm surge areas and mobile homes. They ordered mandatory evacuations for the same areas to begin today.

The mayor's office said as many as one million people in the Houston-Galveston area were under orders to leave.

Persons needing assistance and are unable to make transportation arrangements are asked to call 3-1-1. Those living outside the Houston area should call 713.837.0311. Extra personnel have been placed to handle the calls.

On Monday, Governor Rick Perry recalled the Texas National Guard and other emergency personnel and equipment from their Hurricane Katrina duties in Louisiana in anticipation of Hurridane Rita.

“With the potential of another major hurricane forming in the Gulf of Mexico and threatening the Texas coast, the time is now to begin mobilizing our resources and implementing our plan to ensure an orderly response before Texas is hit,” Governor Perry said. “For the past three weeks, our emergency personnel have been assisting our neighbors devastated by Hurricane Katrina and over the last year our state has heightened preparations for dealing with a catastrophic storm."

“I strongly, strongly urge Gulf Coast residents to pay attention to this storm,” said R. David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director. “Listen to your state and local officials. If they ask you to evacuate, please do so immediately."

Accused of reacting much too slowly to Hurricane Katrina, FEMA is under new leadership of Paulison, who previously headed FEMA's fire response division and is experienced in disaster management.

Galveston

In 1900 a hurricane nearly wiped Galveston off the map. At least 6,000 people lost their lives in the disaster. (Photo courtesy National Weather Service)
Ahead of Rita, FEMA and federal agencies have been pre-positioning supplies and commodities in the surrounding areas and potential landfall areas of the storm. FEMA is pre-positioning trucks full of water and ice and establishing disaster medical teams.

The U.S. Coast Guard is ready with helicopters from Air Station Houston, Air Station Corpus Christi and in Miami. Coast Guard units on immediate standby in Miami include damage assessment teams, emergency response and reconstruction.

More than 300,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen are currently available throughout the 54 states and territories prepared to respond to any crisis. The National Guard is pre-positioning resources in preparation for the anticipated landfall of Hurricane Rita.

Shell, Chevron and other oil companies are evacuating their U.S. Gulf of Mexico offshore personnel before Rita hits, the companies said in separate statements. The federal Minerals Management Service says the combined evacuations from Rita and Katrina are equivalent to 57 percent of 819 manned platforms and 51 percent of 134 rigs currently operating in the Gulf of Mexico.