Hurricane Rita roars ashore on border
Strong Category 3 storm threatens to level coastal Texas oil towns NBC, MSNBC and news services
Updated: 5:34 a.m. ET Sept. 24, 2005
BEAUMONT, Texas - Hurricane Rita made landfall Saturday morning, igniting the pre-dawn sky with exploding transformers and menacing coastal towns along the Texas-Louisiana border with 120-mph winds and storm surges that experts said could strike a catastrophic blow to the oil refining industry.

The eye of the Category 3 storm hit land at 3:38 a.m. ET on the extreme southwest coast of Louisiana between Sabine Pass, Texas, and Johnson’s Bayou. But the eyewall — the ring of high winds surrounding the calm eye — had crashed ashore more than an hour and a half earlier, lashing the coastal area between Sabine Pass and Cameron, La., according to the National Hurricane Center.

At 4:45 a.m. ET, the storm center was near Port Arthur, Texas, bombarding it and two other oil refining towns — Beaumont, Texas, and Lake Charles, La. — with 20-foot storm surges, towering waves and up to 25 inches of rain.

“That’s where people are going to die,” Max Mayfield, director of the hurricane center, told MNSBC-TV. “All these areas are just going to get absolutely clobbered by the storm surge.”

The storm surge was already taking a toll in areas previously ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. In rainy New Orleans, water poured over a patched levee, gushing into one of the city’s lowest-lying neighborhoods — the hard-hit and largely empty Ninth Ward — and heightening fears that Rita would flood the devastated city all over again.

Jason Barnes, a spokesman for Lake Charles, northwest of New Orleans, told MSNBC-TV that a casino had come unmoored and was racing down a shipping channel toward the Gulf of Mexico.

With rain cascading on Lake Charles at the rate of 3 to 4 inches an hour, Barnes was speaking from Lafayette, 30 miles away, where he and the rest of the government had evacuated. Nearly all of the city’s residents had already cleared out of the area; those who stayed behind, he said, were on their own.

“There’s nothing that we can do, because it’s just too unsafe for us to get out there to them,” Barnes said.

Rita to stall over coast
What was worse, Mayfield said, was that Rita was likely to become trapped between high-pressure cells to its east and its west, essentially freezing it in place over east Texas and southwest Louisiana; the result could be heavy rainfall well inland and for several days, as much as 1 to 2 feet.

In anticipation, Texas and Louisiana officials orchestrated what was being called the biggest evacuation in U.S. history: At least 2.8 million people fled a 500-mile stretch of the coastline, causing monumental traffic jams in which hundreds of cars broke down or ran out of gasoline. As many as 24 people were killed when a bus carrying evacuees from a Houston retirement home burst into flames.

The concern now is for the smaller oil refining towns on the Texas coast.

Jack Colley, director of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, said Port Arthur was likely to suffer a “catastrophic” flood. Mayor Oscar Ortiz ordered a mandatory evacuation and said 95 percent of residents had left — including his entire city government, he told MSNBC-TV.

All told, said Steve McGraw, director of the Texas Homeland Security Department, the storm was likely to leave damage in as many as 19 counties, affecting up to 11 million Texans. The state’s emergency management coordinator, Jack Colley, predicted that Rita would cause $8.2 billion in damage.

President Bush, who was criticized for a slow federal response to Katrina, aborted a planned trip to Texas to view the emergency preparations Friday. Instead, he went to Colorado Springs, where he was monitoring the storm’s progress from U.S. Northern Command at Peterson Air Force Base.

Federal officials declared a public health emergency Friday for Texas and Louisiana in anticipation of Hurricane Rita’s strike, even as they continued to urge people to get to safety or hunker down if it was too late to leave.

Chemical, fuel industries threatened
Scores of petrochemical plants are along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast in the nation’s biggest concentration of oil refineries, and damage and disruptions caused by Rita could cause already-rising oil and gasoline prices to go even higher. Environmentalists, meanwhile, warned of the possibility of a toxic spill.

Plants shut down operations, and hundreds of workers were evacuated from offshore oil rigs. Perry said state officials had been in contact with plants about “taking appropriate procedures to safeguard their facilities.”

Rita’s maximum sustained wind remained at 120 mph, down from 175 mph on Thursday, according to the National Hurricane Center. That made Rita a Category 3 storm, downgraded from a fearsome Category 4. But Mayfield said it was still deadly, “probably reminiscent of Hurricane Audrey in 1957,” which killed 425 people along the Gulf Coast.

Rita’s hurricane-force winds extended up to 85 miles from the center, and its tropical storm-force winds reached outward 205 miles, meaning Houston and Galveston might not feel Rita’s full fury but could still be battered.

Two towns set for a direct hit
The two communities that stood to bear the brunt of the storm were Beaumont, which is a petrochemical, shipbuilding and port city of about 114,000 people, and Port Arthur, a city of about 58,000 whose industries include oil, shrimping and crawfishing.

The offshore gulf region produces a third of U.S. oil. The closings raised to at least 13 the number of U.S. refineries out of commission from Katrina and Rita, which have shut 29 percent of U.S. refining capacity and raised the specter of serious gasoline shortages in the days ahead.

Exxon Mobil said it was closing its Baytown facility, the largest U.S. oil refinery, and one in Beaumont, 90 miles east. It was in Beaumont that the Spindletop well erupted in a 100-foot gusher in 1901, giving rise to such giants as Gulf, Humble and Texaco.

In Port Arthur — a down-on-its-luck town with a largely poor population of minorities, including Vietnamese shrimp fishermen, and a downtown museum devoted to one of its most famous natives, Janis Joplin — streetlights were turned off. Stores were boarded up along with the homes, many of which sit up on cinderblocks.

In neighboring Orange, “we’ve got a major, major problem building up on us,” Judge Carl Thibodeaux, the Orange County executive, told KTRH radio of Houston.

“We’re looking at a possible 17-foot storm surge,” Thibodeaux said. “Parts of our city are only five feet, so we're looking at 12 feet of water.”

The usually bustling tourist island of Galveston — which was rebuilt after as many as 12,000 people died in a 1900 hurricane that is still the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history — was all but abandoned, with at least 90 percent of its 58,000 residents cleared out.

The west side of the island was already under 2 feet of water, NBC’s Janet Shamlian reported, and the hotel where the city’s emergency officials had retreated was without power.

A woman was in critical condition after a large fire broke out Friday night in downtown Galveston, engulfing three buildings and sending flames shooting into the sky. Its cause was not immediately known, but NBC affiliate KPRC-TV in Houston reported that a blazing electric pole was lying atop one of the buildings.

National Guard struggles in Louisiana
In Louisiana, the National Guard was trying to position its forces to respond but was frustrated by the hurricane’s erratic movement, said Maj. Ed Bush, a spokesman.

David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said, “I don’t think anyone in the Gulf Coast is out of harm’s way.”

To the east, Mississippi declared a state of emergency because of Rita’s changing path and the possibility that it could bring heavy rains, flooding and tornadoes.

The government had already moved some emergency medical supplies to Texas, but Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt declared a public health emergency to ease some of the requirements for hurricane victims who seek Medicaid or other assistance after the storm, a spokesman said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.