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Thursday, September 22, 2005
 

Millions Flee From 'Potentially Catastrophic' Rita

Traffic came to a standstill and gas shortages were reported Thursday as hundreds of thousands of people in the Houston metropolitan area rushed to get out of the path of hurricane Rita, a monster storm with winds of 274 km/h. More than 1.3 million residents in Texas and Louisiana were under orders to evacuate to avoid a deadly repeat of the recent hurricane Katrina. The Category 5 storm weakened slightly Thursday morning, and forecasters said it could be down to a Category 3 - meaning winds as high as 209 km/h - by the time it comes ashore late Friday or early Saturday. But it could still be a dangerous storm - one aimed straight at a section of coastline with the country's biggest concentration of oil refineries.
"Don't follow the example of Katrina and wait. No one will come and get you during the storm."
Highways leading inland out of Houston were gridlocked. Gas stations were reported to be running out of gas. Shoppers emptied grocery store shelves. I-45 is the primary evacuation route north from Houston and Galveston. Police officers along the highways carried gasoline to help people get out of town. Forecasters said Rita could be the strongest hurricane on record to hit Texas. Only three Category 5 hurricanes, the highest on the scale, are known to have hit the U.S. mainland - most recently, Andrew, which smashed South Florida in 1992. Hundreds of buses were dispatched Wednesday to evacuate the poor and move out hospital and nursing home patients. At 8 a.m. EDT Thursday, Rita was centred about 790 kilometres east-southeast of Galveston and was moving west-northwest near 15 km/h. Wind speed was 274 km/h, down slightly from 282 km/h earlier in the day. Forecasters predicted it would come ashore along the central Texas coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi. Rainfall from the storm could reach 38 centimetres in spots. Hurricane-force winds extended up to 115 kilometres from the centre of the storm, and could prove devastating to the fractured levees protecting New Orleans. In the Galveston-Houston-Corpus Christi area, about 1.3 million people were under orders to get out, in addition to 20,000 or more along with the Louisiana coast. Galveston, a coastal city of 58,000 on an island 2 1/2 metres above sea level, was nearly wiped off the map in 1900 when an unnamed hurricane killed between 6,000 and 12,000. It remains the United States' worst natural disaster. City manager Steve LeBlanc said the storm surge could reach 15 metres. Galveston is protected by a seawall that is only five metres tall. Galveston's mayor said buses used to take people and their pets off the island were running in short supply Wednesday and warned that stragglers could be left to fend for themselves. Crude oil prices rose again on fears that Rita would destroy key oil installations in Texas and the gulf. Hundreds of workers were evacuated from offshore oil rigs. Texas, the heart of U.S. crude production, accounts for 25% of the country's total oil output. Rita is the 17th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, making this the fourth-busiest season since record-keeping started in 1851. The record is 21 tropical storms in 1933. The hurricane season is not over until November 30. Gulf Hurricane of Top Strength Menaces Texas - Hurricane Rita Blasts Across Gulf Headed for Texas - Seattle Post Intelligencer - TIME - Bloomberg - Houston Chronicle
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