Rita Strengthens Into Category 5 Storm

9-21-05 - The National Hurricane Center says that Hurricane Rita has strengthened into a top-of-the-scale Category 5 storm, with sustained wind of 165 mph.

Residents of the Texas Gulf Coast have already started gathered up belongings and heading inland Wednesday as Hurricane Rita barreled toward the state.

Gov. Rick Perry urged people from Corpus Christi to Port Arthur to begin evacuating. Residents of Galveston County, parts of Houston and other areas along the coast were ordered to leave in the first use of a new state law allowing mandatory evacuations.

In Corpus Christi, officials ordered about 10,000 residents of the low-lying islands around the city to evacuate by Wednesday afternoon. City spokesman Ted Nelson said buses would be available for those who need it.

Area schools, businesses and universities shut down, and several sporting events were postponed.

Forecasters predicted it would come ashore Saturday somewhere between Galveston and Corpus Christi - an area covering much of the coast.

In Galveston, buses bound for shelters in Huntsville and College Station left at midmorning with the elderly and others needing help. Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said 1,500 people had been evacuated by noon.

"It was quite a sight," she said of dozens of school buses that lined up and drove residents off the island. "We were able to put people on with their dog crates, their cats crates, their shopping carts. It went very well. The people were calm."

Some 600 public housing residents were among those bused, and city officials reassured residents no one would be left behind.

"We've got more bus space than people and I'm not going to send them off empty," said City Manager Steve LeBlanc. "We are going to hold empty buses until the bitter end."

Able-bodied residents of Galveston were ordered to begin leaving by 6 p.m., but authorities suggested there was no reason to wait.

"If you are staying, your services are going to be disrupted and when the storm waters, tides get high enough and we cannot get to you, we cannot rescue you. So please make plans to evacuate," said Galveston City Attorney Susie Green.

"After this killer in New Orleans, Katrina, I just cannot fathom staying," 59-year-old Ldyyan Jean Jocque said before sunrise Wednesday as she waited for an evacuation bus outside the Galveston Community Center. She had packed her Bible, some music and clothes into plastic bags and loaded her dog into a pet carrier.

The Edgewater Retirement Community, a six-story building situated near the city's seawall, began evacuating its more than 200 nursing home patients and independent retirees by chartered bus and ambulance.

"They either go with a family member or they go with us, but this building is not safe sitting on the seawall with a major hurricane coming," said David Hastings, executive director. "I have had several say, `I don't want to go,' and I said, `I'm sorry, you're going.'"

North of Galveston in Harris County, which includes Houston, the state's largest city, officials urged residents to prepare for flooding as far as 35 miles inland.

"We need citizens who may need assistance in evacuations to reach out to friends, family and neighbors," Mayor Bill White said. "There will not be enough government vehicles to go and evacuate everybody in every area."

Unlike other hurricane-prone cities where the big city is on the coast, Houston is 60 miles inland. So a coastal suburban area of 2 million people has to evacuate through a metropolitan area of nearly 4 million.

Authorities around the state said they wanted to make sure Texans learned from Hurricane Katrina, during which thousands of people hadn't evacuated when the storm hit Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi on Aug. 29.

"We've always asked people to leave earlier, but because of Katrina, they are now listening to us and they're leaving as we say," Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said.

In Austin, state emergency workers were preparing for the worst.

The State Emergency Operations Center was on 24-hour status, with 34 state agencies on site, Perry spokeswoman Kathy Walt said. The state Division of Emergency Management started moving food, water and other supplies to Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio in preparation for evacuees.

This month marks the 105th anniversary of the hurricane that wiped out Galveston in one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history. An estimated 8,000 people were killed.

The last major hurricane to strike Texas was Alicia in 1983, which flooded downtown Houston, spawned 22 tornadoes and left 21 people dead. Damages totaled more than $2 billion from the Category 3 storm.


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