December 18 • 01:52 PM
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Massive traffic jams as Texans flee Rita
Category 5 hurricane poses flood risk to Louisiana
submitted by Travis
September 22, 2005 | 11:30 AM


(click for larger version)
Hundreds of thousands of people in Texas and Louisiana were loading up their cars and fleeing inland Thursday as Hurricane Rita menaced the Gulf Coast.

But many weren't getting very far.

Houston resident Tim Conklin told CNN that he had been in bumper-to-bumper traffic for 13 hours and had only gotten about 48 miles. He said the drive to Dallas, where his father-in-law lives, usually only takes about four hours. (Watch Texas residents heed evacuation warnings -- 2:07)

On Highway 290, the main road between Houston and Austin, people were pushing their cars and minivans to save gas -- and were moving just as fast as the vehicles that were driving. Others were stopped on the side of the highway after breaking down or running out of gas.

Texas Department of Transportation spokesman Mark Cross told CNN that this is the first time that a mandatory evacuation has been issued for Houston -- a city of 3 million people. He said that traffic would be reversed on key roads leading into the city to speed the flow of traffic.

Forecasters said that the storm had weakened slightly early Thursday, but warned that it was still a Category 5 storm.

At 11 a.m. ET, the storm was centered about 460 miles (740 kilometers) southeast of Galveston and was moving to the north-northwest at 9 mph (14 kph). (Watch how Galveston is in a precarious location -- 1:58)

The Category 5 storm had maximum sustained winds of 165 mph (266 kph).

The National Hurricane Center predicted that the storm would make a gradual turn to the northwest

New flood fears for New Orleans

Although Rita is expected to make landfall early Saturday between Galveston and Corpus Christi, the National Hurricane Center has not ruled out an impact for Louisiana, where post-Katrina recovery efforts are continuing.

The hurricane center said Thursday that Rita could dump as much as three inches of rain in the New Orleans area when it hits Gulf Coast -- a threshold that the Army Corps of Engineers has said may overwhelm that city's fragile levee system.

"There is still a risk from New Orleans and eastward of upwards to about three inches of rain, at least that's the current projection," said Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the center.

Officials started closing the flood gates around Lake Pontchartrain Thursday morning in preparation for the Rita.

More than 1,000 deaths are blamed on Katrina, which struck August 29.

Residents take warnings seriously

Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas told CNN that about 75 percent to 80 percent of the city's 58, 000 residents had evacuated by Thursday morning.

"We hope that whoever is left here... will move on out today," Thomas said.

"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.

Galveston was flattened by an infamous hurricane in 1900. (Watch a report on the storm of the century -- 2:00)

Some people leaving Texas cities this week were experiencing their second evacuation in a month, having fled Hurricane Katrina to Texas.

Corpus Christi Mayor Henry Garrett signed mandatory evacuation orders Wednesday for 250,000 people in that Texas coastal city and the rest of Nueces County. Garrett said the 13,000 to 15,000 residents of Padre and Mustang islands and low-lying areas of Corpus Christi must leave their homes by 2 p.m. (3 p.m. ET) Thursday. The rest have until Thursday evening to leave.

Garrett said he is ordering the evacuations at least a day earlier than he normally would because of the disaster wrought by Katrina.

R. David Paulison, acting undersecretary for homeland security, said support teams and supplies were being moved from Florida to Texas as Rita's landfall nears.

Fourteen urban search-and-rescue teams, with a total of 800 members, and 400 medical personnel were being put in place, he said.

He said the Department of Defense was helping to set up field hospitals to accommodate 2,500 beds, providing materials to build temporary bridges in case of serious damage to infrastructure, and organizing food kitchens. In addition, the Department of Transportation was providing buses for evacuations.

Hurricane-force winds were extending outward for up to 85 miles (136 kilometers) from the center, and tropical storm-force winds were extending up to 185 miles (297 kilometers).

A hurricane warning has been issued for Port O'Connor, Texas, to Morgan City, Louisiana. The warning means that hurricane conditions, including sustained winds of at least 74 mph, are possible within 24 hours.

A tropical storm warning was in effect on either side of the hurricane warning.

New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain are covered under a tropical storm watch, which extends from the mouth of the Mississippi River to the Pearl River. That means tropical storm conditions are possible in the next 36 hours.

Several refineries, that process about 3 million barrels of oil each day, could be threatened by Rita. Some energy analysts predict that disruption from the storm could trigger a surge in gas prices. (Watch Rita's threat to oil supplies)

Category 5 storms -- which can generate storm surges higher than 18 feet and can cause catastrophic damage to buildings -- are rare. Only three such monsters have made landfall in the United States in the past 70 years, including Andrew in 1992, Camille in 1969 and the unnamed storm that hit the Florida Keys in 1935.

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