HOUSTON – Four hundred miles of dread stretched along the Gulf Coast Thursday from Texas through Louisiana as Hurricane Rita, a recurring nightmare of catastrophe, closed in on an area that included Galveston, Houston and – unbelievably – New Orleans.

Each new forecast walked the storm’s core closer to Louisiana, though not all the way to New Orleans. Still, Rita already was hurling rain and wind into the city, all but destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, forecasters issued a tropical storm warning for it, and engineers nervously monitored newly repaired levees.

As Texans fled the coast and the metropolis of Houston – and as gasoline supplies evaporated along the way – a 100-mile traffic jam blocked Interstate 45 from downtown Houston to points north. The domino effect: Motorists idling in the jam also ran out of fuel, making it worse.

“This is unprecedented,” said Mark Cross of the Texas Department of Transportation.

Said R. David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency: “That’s why we tell people to leave early. We feel we have plenty of time to get people out of harm’s way.”

Even though Rita’s course might shift, great potential harm thundered through the Gulf of Mexico and approached densely populated, low-lying Houston at 9 mph, faster than many vehicles could move along the highway.

“I’m worried for my family,” said Mike Garza, 38, a Houston resident who tried to drive his wife and three children to safety but – like thousands of others – had a hard time on the highways. “I’ll go as far as I can. I’m just trying to get out of town before it gets any worse.”

Weakening slightly during the day but still a Category 4 terror, Rita’s outer bands of squalls began sweeping the Gulf Coast on Thursday morning and intensified that evening.

Conditions will worsen, particularly along the east Texas and west Louisiana coast, the nation’s primary oil drilling and refining center. More than 27 percent of U.S. refining capacity lay in Rita’s path, and gasoline-supply disruptions could last three weeks.

Though Rita’s path and intensity will fluctuate before the center makes landfall around daybreak Saturday, the core was predicted to strike as a 125-mph Category 3 hurricane.

That means another disaster along the Gulf Coast appears inevitable, though its dimensions will depend on precisely where that core comes ashore. A hurricane warning covered 404 miles of coastline from Port O’Connor, Texas, to Morgan City, La. That means hurricane conditions are expected within 24 hours.

The tropical storm warning for New Orleans meant that winds higher than 39 mph were expected within 36 hours. With up to 5 inches of rain also expected in the already swamped city, engineers said they believed – they hoped – that newly repaired levees would withstand the strain.

In particular, the Army Corps of Engineers expressed confidence that a 14-foot steel wall it erected between the 17th Street Canal and Lake Pontchartrain would prevent floodwaters from flowing back into the city.

At the same time, areas inland weren’t immune: Forecasters warned that some could receive more than 25 inches of rain as Rita slows to a crawl over eastern Texas and western Louisiana. Inland flooding is the greatest cause of death in a hurricane.

Throughout the sprawling region, 1.8 million residents of Galveston and vulnerable areas of Houston, other parts of Texas and, again, New Orleans and other areas in Louisiana were under mandatory evacuation orders.

“If you’re in this storm’s path, you need to get gone,” said Texas Gov. Rick Perry at midday. To those who don’t, he added: “God bless you. But don’t expect there to be a lot of support in those areas.”

Chastised for its slow response to Katrina, the federal government mustered troops, relief workers and tons of supplies in staging areas just outside the projected impact zone.

The Pentagon, for example, readied 26 helicopters for damage assessment and search and rescue missions. Six naval vessels, including the USNS Comfort hospital ship, prepared to travel to the impact area.

FEMA, harshly criticized earlier this month, stored an initial 45 truckloads of ice, 45 truckloads of water, six truckloads of tarpaulins, as well as portable generators for critical buildings – hospitals and nursing homes – in Austin, Texas.

State officials also moved quickly.

Perry, the Texas governor, deployed 1,750 National Guard troops and placed more than 3,000 others on standby. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco requested 15,000 National Guard troops.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

Horrified by the death and devastation wrought by Katrina, most people heeded the evacuation orders, triggering a reverse morning rush hour out of Houston – except only the lucky few could really rush.

Walter Nesbitt, 48, from Texas City, and his wife were found on I-45 about 10 miles on the wrong side – the south side – of Houston. They waited in a line of 10 cars at a Shell station. They were trying to reach the safety of San Antonio, about 190 miles away

“All I can think about is getting gas,” Nesbitt said. “I can’t even think about what Rita is going to do to my home, which I think may not be there when I get back. I never dreamed a city this size would just simply start running out of gas, but it looks like that is what’s happening.”

(EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)

He guessed he would need 15 hours to reach his destination, usually about three hours away.

Roads were crowded, gasoline in short supply and hotels overbooked as far away as Austin, nearly 200 miles from the coast. Convoys of military trucks streamed south.

“There’s no panic, but you can tell that people are worried,” said Bob Richards, a Denver resident who was driving through and found himself in a bad place at a bad time. “There are a lot of evacuees here.”

(END OPTIONAL TRIM)

Lengthy delays also stymied operations at Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport, where some people waited four hours to check in.

“They weren’t ready for this,” said passenger Kevin O’Neal. “They don’t have enough people. It’s chaotic.”

Houston Mayor Bill White blamed the Transportation Security Administration, saying many of its employees failed to show up for work.

Andrea McCauley, a TSA spokeswoman, confirmed a staffing shortage, saying many workers “have homes and loved ones that they need to tend to.” She said more screeners were flown in from elsewhere in Texas.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

As always, some people defied orders or strong recommendations to leave.

In the low-income, flood-prone neighborhood of South Union, in southeast Houston, L. Williams stood outside the Come & Go Food Store, buying gasoline from one of the few pumps still open in the city.

Not only was he staying behind, he also planned to work as usual Thursday cutting his customers’ lawns.

“Oh, yeah,” said Williams, 70. “It’s not raining yet.”

Forecasters said they believed that Rita’s power peaked early Thursday, when it became the third-strongest U.S. hurricane, in terms of atmospheric pressure, since record-keeping began in 1851.

Because the storm will spend most of its time over unusually warm, nourishing water, it was expected to retain considerable destructive capability even if its winds slowed.

Importantly, the storm’s danger resided not only in its power, but also in its size and scope. Hurricane-force winds higher than 74 mph roared 60 miles in most directions from the center.

Tropical storm-force winds higher than 39 mph ranged 205 miles from the center, a sweep that will include central Louisiana, but should fall short of New Orleans, though forecasters said the city could be hit by 50-mph gusts.

Tides already were 2 feet above normal in areas of Mississippi and Louisiana struck by Katrina. Tides in that area will increase to 3 to 4 feet, forecasters said, topped by high waves.

Worse, at the point of the core’s landfall and to the east of that unfortunate spot, 20-foot storm surges were expected, enough to inundate many areas along the coast.

And so, great numbers of people boarded up, packed up and fled.

In Pasadena, southeast of Houston and close to Galveston Bay, these signs were spray-painted on shuttered businesses.

O’Reilly Auto Parts: “Gone Fishin.”

Deer Park Vacuum: “Open Monday with wet vacs.”

The Shell station: “We will survive.”



(Fadel and Hanna of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported from Houston and Merzer of The Miami Herald reported from Washington.

Also contributing to this report were Jack Douglas Jr. of the Star-Telegram in Houston; Edwin Garcia of the San Jose Mercury News in Pasadena, Texas; David Klepper of the Kansas City Star in Corpus Christi; Byron Okada of the Star-Telegram in Fort Worth, Texas; Dwight Ott of The Philadelphia Inquirer in New Orleans; L. Lamar Williams of the Star-Telegram in Huntsville, Texas; and Knight Ridder’s Drew Brown in Washington.)




Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.