HOUSTON – Hurricane Rita wreaked havoc even before the brunt of the storm made landfall Friday, as floodwaters topped a key levee in sodden New Orleans, thousands of evacuees took cover in shelters across Texas and Louisiana and as many as 24 people were killed in a fiery bus accident near Dallas.

Downgraded to a Category 3 hurricane, Rita packed 125 mph winds and was on track to strike early Saturday near the Texas-Louisiana border. Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas, and Lake Charles, La., were poised to take the biggest hits.

Houston, site of an unprecedented evacuation that left roadways gridlocked all the way to Dallas, could be spared the brunt of the hurricane.

The full ferocity of the storm appeared aimed at the Gulf Coast oil industry, an intricate web of chemical plants and refineries that dot the region and provide about a quarter of America’s refining capacity. There were fears that a major hit could trigger a spike in already spiraling gas prices.

“Be calm, be strong. Say a prayer for Texas,” said Gov. Rick Perry.

In Louisiana, still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, Gov. Kathleen Blanco told residents who hadn’t already evacuated the southwestern part of the state to remain where they were and ride out the storm. She also pleaded for federal relief to pay base salaries of police and firefighters and to use motels to house evacuees made homeless from Katrina.

All across the region, residents and authorities battened down the hatches and some 2.8 million people fled the storm’s path, sometimes with tragic results.

A bus evacuating residents from the Brighton Gardens nursing home in Bellaire, near Houston, caught fire early Friday along a jammed highway in Wilmer, near Dallas. Passengers’ oxygen tanks exploded as the flames spread, authorities said. At least 24 people were believed to have died in the blaze, which destroyed the vehicle.

“There was a flat tire, but the bus had started up again and at that point there was a fire,” said Bellaire Mayor Cindy Siegel. “The personnel from Brighton Gardens did everything that they could to get people off that bus. They were fortunate to save as many lives as they did.”

In New Orleans, portions of the city began to flood again after the city’s two most compromised levees gave way Friday morning. Water streamed back into the city’s impoverished Lower 9th Ward, scene of utter devastation and death in Katrina’s aftermath. Gushing rapids began to cover the smashed neighborhood even as the storm clouds from Hurricane Rita roiled overhead.

“If it’s already this bad now, it makes you wonder how bad it’s going to get when the storm hits,” said Sgt. Chris Brewer of the Oklahoma National Guard, standing on the North Claiborne Street Bridge watching the waters in the Inner Harbor Navigational Canal.

Most residents had long cleared out of New Orleans, although military units made sweeps through the empty, waterlogged city to find the last of the holdouts.

About 2,500 soldiers from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division were still deployed in the city. Major Gen. Bill Caldwell, commander of the 82nd Airborne, said his soldiers prepared 80 vehicles loaded with food, water and medical supplies.

“We’re here in New Orleans but we’re told to be prepared to launch to the southwestern part of the state,” he said.

In Houston, newspapers rustled in the wind of the near-deserted downtown as the city was poised for the storm. Evacuees who didn’t make it out of town took shelter at hotels.

“I don’t think it will be bad out here. I’m very calm about the whole thing. I feel bad for the people in Louisiana,” said Karla Montejo, 28, who planned to wait out the storm at her software company with family, friends and all their pets.

Dominga Deriggi, 42, a clerk in a doctor’s office, didn’t leave Houston because she didn’t want to get stuck in traffic. Still, while walking the near-empty streets, she expressed fears that looters could become emboldened in the storm’s wake.

“Hopefully, it doesn’t get ugly here,” she said.

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President Bush, who had been finishing a working vacation when Hurricane Katrina struck the region and did not tour the disaster area for days, wasted no time in getting in front of Hurricane Rita.

“We’re facing yet another big storm, and I appreciate the folks here who are working so hard to help the folks on the ground prepare for the storm,” Bush said in Washington at FEMA, which was blamed for delayed federal action in the aftermath of Katrina.

Bush vowed not to interfere with storm relief.

“One thing I won’t do is get in the way … I promise you,” he said.

Later, as Hurricane Katrina shifted course, the president scrapped plans to stop at a depot in San Antonio where authorities were assembling food and water for storm victims, and flew directly to Colorado Springs, Colo., where he was prepared to monitor the hurricane at the U.S. Northern Command’s operations center.

Acting FEMA Director R. David Paulison said preparations for Hurricane Rita were going “fairly smoothly.” He said he was “comfortable” with the resources the federal government had in place, which he said included nearly 50,000 active-duty and National Guard troops in the region.

“I think at this point the federal government has done pretty much all that’s possible to do,” he said. “Right now, we just have to wait out the storm, see exactly where it makes landfall and then move ahead with our supplies that we have on the ground and our resources,” Paulison said.



(Casillas reported from Houston, and Glauber in New Orleans. Chicago Tribune correspondents Jeff Zeleny in New Orleans and Mark Silva and Mike Dorning in Washington contributed to this report.)



(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-RITA

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050923 RITA inland map, 20050923 RITA energy, 20050923 RITA path, 20050923 RITA county map, 20050923 Galveston seawall and 20050923 NOrleans politics

AP-NY-09-23-05 2040EDT


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