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Rita Causes Flooding, Fires on Gulf Coast

Associated Press | September 24, 2005
By TIM WHITMIRE

BEAUMONT, Texas - Hurricane Rita slammed into Texas and Louisiana early Saturday, smashing windows, sparking fires and knocking power out to more than 1 million customers, but largely sparing vulnerable Houston and already reeling New Orleans.

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 top winds of 120 mph and warnings of 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 further inland between Beaumont and Jasper.

There were no immediate reports of fatalities, or any detailed word on damage to the area's vast oil refinery industry, though rescuers and search teams in many areas had to wait for winds to subside before venturing out.

About 3 million people had fled a 500-mile stretch of the Texas-Louisiana coast ahead of the storm, motivated in part by the devastating toll that Hurricane Katrina inflicted on New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast barely three weeks ago.

Radar estimates put Rita's rainfall so far at 4-10 inches, with the highest totals in Texas' Jasper and Newton counties, meteorologist Mark McInerney said, and there was a lingering threat of flooding due to an expected 2 feet of rain in some areas.

The storm spun off tornadoes as it churned northwest, causing transformers to explode. In Jasper County, north of Beaumont, a house with seven people inside floated in floodwaters after it came off its foundation, said sheriff's communications supervisor Alice Duckworth.

But the flood-prone cities of Houston and Galveston largely evacuated over the past four days escaped a direct hit.

"So far, Houston is weathering the storm," Mayor Bill White said Saturday. His police department received 28 burglary calls overnight and made 16 arrests less than a typical Friday night, White said.

In New Orleans, rain drenched parts of the abandoned city early Saturday, straining the levee system already damaged by Katrina. But the forecast of up to three inches throughout the day was less than had been previously predicted.

"Overall, it looks like New Orleans has lucked out," National Weather Service Meteorologist Phil Grigsby said.

Heavy rain fell south of New Orleans in low-lying Jefferson Parish, where a tidal surge of six to seven feet swamped some neighborhoods. Residents of Lafitte, a town of 1,600 south of New Orleans, were being evacuated by bus.

Fires were reported in and around Houston, including one in a two-story apartment building in southeast Houston that left at least eight units damaged, authorities said. Nobody was hurt, according to District Chief Jack Williams. Several buildings were damaged or destroyed by fire in Galveston, and a blaze broke out before dawn at a shopping complex in Pasadena. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

As the sun came up in downtown Beaumont, a port city of 114,000, the few people who stayed behind emerged to find some blown out windows, damaged roofs, signs twisted and lying in the street and scattered downed trees. There was some standing water, but no significant flooding.

The wind was still gusting, but nothing like the 100-mph winds that ripped through early Saturday morning. A light rain was falling.

In Beaumont's nine-story Elegante Hotel in Beaumont, wind blew out massive windows in the hotel lobby, bringing down a chandelier and ripping the roof off another section of lobby.

"We stayed in a stairwell most of the time," said Rainey Chretien, who works at the front desk. "I didn't think it was going to be this bad."

In Tyler County in eastern Texas, high winds ripped roofs off several buildings, including the police department in Woodville, sheriff's Chief Deputy Clint Sturrock said.

The junior high school in nearby Warren also lost its roof, and fire likely triggered by lightning broke out in a pile of logs. "We just let it burn," Sturrock said.

More than 675,000 CenterPoint Energy customers in Texas were without power in the company's service area, which stretches from Galveston into Houston and north to Humble, company spokeswoman Patricia Frank said. Entergy spokesman Chanel Lagarde said about 250,000 of its Texas customers and nearly 300,000 of its Louisiana customers lost power because of Rita.

In Galveston, about 100 miles away from the storm's eye, a fire erupted in the historic Strand district late Friday. Wind-whipped flames leapt across three buildings. City manager Steve LeBlanc said the blaze could have been caused by downed power lines.

"It was like a war zone, shooting fire across the street," Fire Chief Michael Varela said Saturday.

As the storm raged, the torches of oil refineries could be seen burning in the distance from downtown Beaumont. Officials worried about the storm's threat to those facilities and chemical plants strung along the Texas and Louisiana coast.

The facilities represent a quarter of the nation's oil refining capacity and business analysts said damage from Rita could send gas prices as high as $4 a gallon. Environmentalists warned of the risk of a toxic spill.

In the days before the storm's arrival, hundreds of thousands of residents of Texas and Louisiana fled their homes in a mass exodus that produced gridlock and heartbreak.

South of Dallas, a bus of Rita evacuees caught fire in gridlocked traffic, killing as many as 24 nursing home residents who thought they were getting out of harm's way.

Grocery shelves were emptied, gas stations ran out of fuel and motorists had to push their cars to the side of highways after idling for hours in stuck traffic and running out of gas.

Southwestern Louisiana was soaked by driving rain and coastal flooding. Sugarcane fields, ranches and marshlands were under water in coastal Cameron Parish.

The sparsely populated region was almost completely evacuated, but authorities rushed to the aid of a man who had decided to ride out the storm in a house near the Gulf of Mexico after one of man's friends called for help. They were turned back by flooded roads.

President Bush , mindful of criticism the federal government was slow to respond to Hurricane Katrina three weeks ago, planned to visit his home state Saturday. He will go to the state's emergency operations center in Austin and then to San Antonio.

In Lake Charles, home to the nation's 12th-largest seaport and refineries run by ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Citgo and Shell, nearly all 70,000 residents had evacuated. Several riverboat casinos that mostly serve tourists from Texas also closed ahead of the storm.

"We see these storms a little differently after Katrina," said city administrator Paul Rainwater. "We all realize that no matter how safe you feel ... you have to take it seriously, you have to plan."

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said over 90 percent of residents in southwestern parishes, about 150,000 people, had evacuated.

 

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