9-22-05 - With frightening speed, Hurricane Rita grew into a monster storm with 175-mph sustained winds in the Gulf of Mexico early Thursday, sending more than 1.3 million residents in Texas and Louisiana fleeing for higher ground on orders from authorities hoping to avoid a deadly repeat of Katrina.
"It's not worth staying here," Celia Martinez said as she and several relatives finished packing up their homes and pets to head to Houston. "Life is more important than things."
As Gov. Rick Perry urged residents along the state's entire coast to begin evacuating well in advance of Rita's predicted Saturday landfall, New Orleans braced for the possibility that the storm could swamp the misery-stricken city all over again.
Galveston, Corpus Christi and surrounding Nueces County, low-lying parts of Houston, and New Orleans were under mandatory evacuation orders as Rita drew energy from balmy gulf waters. The storm swelled from a 115-mph Category 2 to a 165-mph Category 5 in just a few hours Wednesday.
Forecasters said Rita could be the strongest hurricane on record to ever hit Texas, and easily one of the most powerful ever to slam into the continental United States. 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. And truckloads of water, ice and ready-made meals, and rescue and medical teams on were on standby in an effort by officials to show the lessons learned in Katrina. An Army general in Texas also was told to be prepared to take control of a military task force in Rita's wake.
"We hope and pray that Hurricane Rita will not be a devastating storm, but we got to be ready for the worst," President Bush said in Washington.
At 4 a.m. Thursday, Rita was centered about 515 miles east-southeast of Galveston and was moving west near 9 mph. Forecasters predicted it would come ashore along the central Texas coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi.
Hurricane-force winds extended up to 70 miles from the center of the storm, and even a slight rightward turn could prove devastating to the fractured levees protecting New Orleans.
But with its breathtaking size _ tropical storm-force winds extending 370 miles across _ practically the entire western end of the U.S. Gulf Coast was in peril, and even a slight rightward turn 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 the Louisiana coast. Special attention was given to hospitals and nursing homes, three weeks after scores of sick and elderly patients in the New Orleans area drowned in Katrina's floodwaters or died in the stifling heat while waiting to be rescued.
Facilities caring for patients with special needs were asked to contact the Texas Department of Public Safety at (800) 525-5555 if they need help transporting them to safety, the governor's office said.
Military troops in South Texas also started moving north and schools, businesses and universities were shuttered.
Galveston was already a virtual ghost town. The city's lone hospital was evacuated along with residents of a six-story retirement home.
The coastal city of 58,000 on an island 8 feet 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 nation's worst natural disaster.
In Houston, the state's largest city and home to the highest concentration of Katrina refugees, geography makes evacuation particularly tricky. While many hurricane-prone cities are right on the coast, Houston is 60 miles inland, so a coastal suburban area of 2 million people must evacuate through a metropolitan area of 4 million people where the freeways are often clogged under the best of circumstances.
By late Wednesday, the blinking taillights of motorists headed north from Houston could be see from planes landing at Houston's William P. Hobby Airport on the south side of the city. All routes leading north and west were jammed with vehicles carrying boxes on their roofs.
A family of three, two children in wheelchairs, and a tired-looking woman in hospital scrubs sat in a darkened and deserted bus stop just off Interstate 610, waiting for a ride.
Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas 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.
City Manager Steve LeBlanc said the storm surge could reach 50 feet. Galveston is protected by a seawall that is only 17 feet tall.
Officials in Corpus Christi were also preparing to load up about 100 buses Thursday morning to evacuate people who have no other way to get out.
Meanwhile the death toll from Katrina passed the 1,000 mark Wednesday in five Gulf Coast states. The body count in Louisiana alone was put at nearly 800, most found in the receding floodwaters of New Orleans.
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 percent of the nation'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 Nov. 30.
On the Net:
National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov