Can anyone move my other Hurricane Rita news here?
New Orleans back under water as levees give way
FLOODWATERS breached damaged levees and poured back into New Orleans yesterday, threatening the city with a second catastrophe less than a month after Hurricane Katrina.
To the horror of army engineers, who had predicted that the levees could withstand six inches of rain from the outer edge of Hurricane Rita, water began pouring into the city’s already devastated Ninth Ward after less than a quarter of an inch of rain, with days of rain to come.
With water waist high in the Ninth Ward and rising fast by lunchtime, Major Barry Guidry, of the Georgia National Guard, said: “Our worst fears have come true. We have three significant breaches in the levee and the water is rising rapidly. At daybreak I found substantial breaks and they’ve grown larger.”
As rain from Rita’s outer edge began to fall, engineers faced their greatest nightmare: New Orleans, almost pumped dry yesterday morning, being submerged again.
Brigadier-General Robert Crear, of the Army Corps of Engineers, said that wind gusts from Rita’s outer edge, combined with the rain, had caused a surge of water that had poured over the top of the levee.
He conceded that the rapid onset of a second crisis had taken him and his men by surprise. “We had not expected to get this level of surge this early,” he said. Because of the wind and rain, he said, “we cannot do anything at the moment”.
He said that all his engineers could do was to stockpile boulders and aggregate and try to block the damaged levee again when the bad weather had passed, a wait that could take two or three days.
The Ninth Ward, one of the lowest-lying areas in New Orleans, was the neighbourhood of the city hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. Most homes were reduced to piles of rubble. Yesterday searches by rescue teams, who have been going door to door seeking remaining storm victims, had to be suspended as the water poured in.
The Army Corps of Engineers had worked round the clock in recent days to repair the breach in the Industrial Canal levee above the neighbourhood, which links the Mississippi River, south of the city, to Lake Pontchartrain, its northern edge, but after just a few hours of rain yesterday water seeped over the repaired section then poured through the levee in the form of a waterfall at least 30ft wide.
The outlook for New Orleans was bleak last night. Forecasters predicted that once Rita makes landfall, with its eye about 200 miles west of the city, it could effectively stop for several days, depositing heavy rain over a 300-mile-wide area, including New Orleans.
Hurricane Rita Weakens a Bit; President Cancels Texas Visit
HOUSTON, Sept. 23 - As Hurricane Rita churned closer and grew wider this afternoon, coastal Texas and southwest Louisiana residents who had not yet evacuated were warned to stay put rather than risk being caught in the storm. More than two dozen elderly people died on the road in Texas, all but one in a bus fire.
Hundreds of thousands of people were still in the middle of a mass exodus inland, trying to reach safety before the storm's projected landfall near daybreak on Saturday near Port Arthur on the Texas-Louisiana border. And in New Orleans, damaged levees failed in places, sending waters flooding back into areas inundated by Hurricane Katrina nearly a month ago.
President Bush canceled plans to visit with emergency workers and officials in Texas, citing the storm's shifting path and a desire not to impede preparations, but he still intended to monitor the storm's progress from a military facility in Colorado instead of Washington.
Even as Hurricane Rita continued to weaken in the Gulf of Mexico this afternoon, though still a strong and dangerous Category 3 storm, its turbulent winds widened their reach, lashing out with tropical storm-force winds as far as 205 miles from its churning center.
The National Hurricane Center said at 1 p.m. that Rita's peak sustained winds had ebbed to 125 miles per hour, with hurricane-force winds of 74 m.p.h. or greater extending 85 miles, and that the storm was moving northwest at 12 miles an hour. Government meteorologists said the storm could send tides surging 15 to 20 feet wherever it hits. Rainfalls up to 15 inches could beset coastal areas of Texas and western Louisiana.
In Baton Rouge, La., Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco warned people to now stay in place, after calling on Thursday for the evacuation of nearly half a million people in the southwestern portion of her state.
"If you have not evacuated, it is probably too late for you to do so," Governor Blanco said at an afternoon news conference. "The weather is becoming very unstable and you need to find a safe place to be."
"It is not safe to find yourself stranded on the highway," she added. "Get to the highest ground or highest building in the area that you know of. Call your local authorities if you think you need rescue."
Col. P. Jeffrey Smith, a deputy director of the Louisiana Office of Homeland Secuity and Emergency Preparedness, said that 150,000 residents had evacuated southwestern Louisiana, and that 35,000 evacuees from Rita were already living in Louisiana shelters.In Texas, Houston residents who remained in the city - some had turned back after stalling in traffic for hours - were similarly advised by Mayor Bill White to now stay where they were. While he said at a news conference that the city does have a plan in the works to shelter people with "special needs and who are most at risk," there will be no shelters for the general population.
"We are not encouraging the general public to go on the streets to seek shelter," he said. Instead, they should stay where they are and "shelter in place."
In Beaumont, Tex., many people chose to stay behind despite a mandatory evacuation order and repeated warnings that the Nechos River port city was directly in the path of Hurricane Rita. Even in normal times, parts of the town of 113,000 people floods during rainstorms.
Among those who stayed was Shawna Cabrera, 28, her husband Jorge, 24, and their friend, Felicito Vides, 28. Their car, a 1991 Chevy Blazer was simply not up for a long drive, Ms. Cabrera said.
"I moved from Wichita Falls and all those tornadoes to here, and I know this is something bigger than that, but if I can survive that, I can survive this," she said. A news program on television in the next room was imploring people to leave town.
"We'll be all right here," Ms. Cabrera said. "I'm praying to God."
On the highways, many drivers remained stranded today after running out of gas on Thursday during the peak of the mass evacuation. When the long-promised state gas trucks had still not arrived by 9 a.m. today, the city and county dispatched sheriff's vehicles with limited supplies of gas, enough to get people off the highways and to a safer place. About 300 volunteers also arrived overnight to help the Salvation Army take water to the waiting evacuees.
As many as 2.5 million people jammed evacuation routes beginning on Thursday, heeding days of dire warnings about Rita and with the images of the devastation of Katrina still fresh. Some people were still stuck on highways this morning, though vehicles were flowing much more freely near Houston. Mayor White promised that no one would be left stranded on the highways when the hurricane arrived.
"We will make sure that will not happen," he said. Yet the roads were proving deadly. With the storm still more than 200 miles from the Texas shore, the authorities there reported the first storm-related deaths: at least 20 elderly evacuees who died in a bus fire, and an elderly evacuee who died of dehydration in a traffic jam. President Bush cancelled his plans to watch the storm preparations firsthand in Texas only minutes before his scheduled departure. He will instead fly straight to Colorado, said Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary. Mr. McClellan said the president wanted to avoid getting in the way of search and rescue teams in San Antonio that were now in the process of shifting position to follow the storm.
Michael Chertoff, head of the Department of Homeland Security, said that more than 1.5 million people had been evacuated from the storm's path.
A warning of tropical storm winds - 39 to 73 miles per hour - combined with a rainfall of three to five inches was also issued for the southeast coast of Louisiana by the National Hurricane Center. The area includes New Orleans, which is still struggling to recover from Katrina, which burst the levees that held back Lake Pontchartrain, releasing deadly floodwaters into the city.
The waters breached the city's industrial levee late this morning, submerging the Lower Ninth Ward. "It's a very bad situation for New Orleans," said Timothy J. Schott, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Washington.Total accumulations of more than 25 inches are possible across eastern Texas and western Louisiana over the next several days as the storm slows as it moves inland, the hurricane center said.
"We may not know the full scope of the damage for hours, or even days, particularly if this storm is very slow moving and pours a lot of rain into some of the areas of Texas and Louisiana," Secretary Chertoff said at an afternoon news conference in Washington.
Low-lying areas of Terrebonne Parish, about 80 miles southwest of New Orleans, were also inundated after a storm surge from Hurricane Rita. "We've got levees poppin' here," said Maj. Thomas Odom of the Terrebonne Sheriff's Office, as he directed evacuations using boats and large army-style trucks.
More than five feet of water stood in some areas composed largely of rural residences and part-time fishing camps. Evacuees were ferried to make-shift shelters at schools in areas of the parish that are on higher ground. The parish's civic center in Houma is still full with New Orleans-area Katrina evacuees, Mr. Deroche said. "We were the helping brothers this week," he said. "We need time to catch our breath and regroup."
In Wilmer, Tex., just southeast of Dallas, a bus carrying 45 people from an assisted living center in Houston caught fire on a gridlocked highway and at least 24 people were killed, the Dallas Country Sheriff's office said today. The fire is believed to have been caused by mechanical problems, which led to the explosion of the patients' oxygen tanks.
Near Cleveland, Tex., an 82-year-old woman died of dehydration while stuck in traffic in the stifling heat, Mayor White of Houston said at a briefing this morning.
At the Beaumont Civic Center, about a dozen buses lined up on this overcast morning to take hundreds of stragglers six hours north, to Wichita Falls. Many were elderly African-Americans, worried about their medical conditions, carrying only a bag or two of belongings. One little girl arrived barefoot.
Frankie Roebuck, 82, was apprehensive about leaving with her 85-year-old husband, Leroy; they had been unsuccessful in getting him a new supply of oxygen before finally deciding to leave. "We just decided it was time to go," she said. "We thought we would ride this one out, like we did the rest of them.
Eric Williams, 37, also said he was trying to hold out, but then he saw everyone else leaving. "It was a ghost town, so I said, 'Let me get on,'" he said, carrying a single gym bag of clothes.
Did he know where he was going? "I don't know. I'm just taking a ride."
Landfall for Rita is expected Saturday morning somewhere on the northeast Texas and Louisiana border, but Mr. Schott warned against placing too much emphasis on the exact location.
"This is a huge storm and it will impact a huge area," he said.A hurricane warning was in effect from Port O'Connor, Tex., to Morgan City, La., and the high winds and heavy rains will emerge as Rita approaches the southwest Louisiana and upper Texas coasts late today or tonight, the hurricane center said.
Saying that the storm would be "a great test" for everyone involved, Texas's governor, Rick Perry, said at a news conference that the state was prepared because its people had taken the evacuation seriously.
"We're going to get through this," he said, adding that thousands of relief workers were on standby, that 54 Red Cross shelters were open, and that law enforcement would be in full force after the storm.
"Be calm, be strong," he urged his constituents, and "say a prayer for Texas."
At 1 p.m., the center of the storm was about 190 miles southeast of Galveston, Tex., moving northwest at about 10 miles per hour. The National Hurricane Center said it expected that Rita, once of the strongest Category 5 storms on record, would continue to weaken as it neared the Texas-Louisiana border, but that it remained "dangerous hurricane."
The unending lines of vehicles heading out of Houston on Thursday were only one indication of how seriously people along the Gulf Coast regarded the threat of Hurricane Rita, particularly after the devastation and death caused less than a month ago by Hurricane Katrina.
As the day progressed Thursday the storm weakened slightly, from Category 5 to Category 4 status, as the maximum wind speed fell from 175 miles per hour to about 140. The hurricane also shifted course toward the north, which offered a glimmer of hope to the panicked Houston area but threatened further flooding in New Orleans and other areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
But officials warned that the storm still had the potential to cause widespread damage to Houston, and after witnessing what happened in New Orleans, few people here were willing to take their chances.
Galveston's mayor, Lyda Ann Thomas, said at a news conference that the city had set up a modest refuge for the few residents remaining, but she warned that it was intended to protect people during the storm's most turbulent hours, expected to be between 8 p.m. and midnight. It has only a few cots and some food and water, she said. "Please don't plan to stay there" past the storm, she said. "There are no nurses, no doctors, no triage."
The Houston area's two major air gateways, Hobby Airport and Bush Intercontinental, suffered major delays when more than 150 screeners from the Transportation Security Administration, facing their own evacuation concerns, did not show up for work. The agency later rushed in replacements, a spokeswoman said, but passengers, already burdening the system with extra luggage for their trips to safety, waited for hours to go through security.
While the storm is expected to hit the shore with as much strength as Hurricane Katrina did, forecasters added an additional concern Thursday, saying it was likely to stall inland for several days and disgorge enormous amounts of rain.
The storm is expected to wreak billions of dollars of property damage on the Texas coast, which is one of only a handful of states to have such high property values in coastal areas. Eqecat, a risk management firm based in Oakland, Calif., estimated today that insured losses would be between $9 billion to $18 billion, adding to a projected $14 billion to $22 billion in insured losses from Hurricane Katrina.
Because the central coast of Texas is home to the country's largest concentration of oil operations, Hurricane Rita has also threatened to put further strain on fuel supplies and inflate gas prices. But its movement northward has lessened some of that concern, and Citgo Petroleum Corporation said the employees of its Corpus Christi refinery were returning to work today. Hurricane Katrina, while similar in intensity and size, did not cause inland flooding after hitting the Gulf Coast because it was swept out of the South by the jet stream, said Mr. Schott of the National Weather Service.
But the jet stream, a high-altitude, east-flowing river of air, has shifted to near the Great Lakes, Mr. Schott said, and so cannot be relied on to "scoop out" the swirling, Georgia-size mass of moisture and rain clouds that will be left behind this weekend as Hurricane Rita moves over East Texas, Oklahoma and parts of Arkansas.
"This is looming as a big problem," Mr. Schott said. "The storm could spend three days hanging around there" and could easily produce 10 inches or more of rain, enough to cause intense flooding.
Forecasters said the pinwheeling bands of thunderstorms radiating several hundred miles from the eye of the hurricane could produce up to five inches of rain in New Orleans, near the limit of what Army Corps of Engineers officials said the city's taxed pumps could handle.
Governor Blanco of Louisiana appealed for 30,000 more Army and National Guard troops to respond to Hurricane Rita. Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, director of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, said he would forward to request for to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff.Brig. Gen. William T. Grisoli, commander of the North Atlantic Division of the Army Corps of Engineers, said this afternoon that there was little danger of water spilling into the city again from Lake Pontchartrain, as occurred after Hurricane Katrina, because the storm surge was only about 4 feet.
The Department of Transportation said today that two ships docked at Beaumont would shelter more than 70 of the city's emergency vehicles so that they could lumber ashore immediately after the storm passes. It also said that the S.S. Potomac, a pipeline vessel currently at the Port of Orange in Texas, would serve as a floating gas station, providing fuel for emergency and relief operations along the Texas and Louisiana coasts.