As much as one-fifth of the Houston metro area took to the highways and booked virtually every available room inland yesterday as Hurricane...
HOUSTON — As much as one-fifth of the Houston metro area took to the highways and booked virtually every available room inland yesterday as Hurricane Rita — a monstrous Category 5 storm with 175 mph winds — moved toward a collision course with the Texas coastline.
Gas stations were running out of fuel as roads filled with outbound traffic. Estimates were as many as 1 million people were headed for higher ground.
Residents were heeding pleas to evacuate from Gov. Rick Perry and local officials from Brownsville to Beaumont.
“The time to leave is now,” Perry said at an Austin news conference. “It quite likely will be a devastating storm.”
Rita became a Category 5 storm early yesterday afternoon, and the National Hurricane Center said it was the third most powerful hurricane ever recorded.
The storm, with hurricane-force winds stretching 45 miles from its center and tropical-storm winds extending 140 miles, was located 540 miles east-southeast of Galveston. Landfall was projected late tomorrow or early Saturday near Freeport, about 40 miles southwest of Galveston, but officials warned there were no guarantees.
Wherever the storm hits, major impacts were expected up and down the coast and as far as 100 miles inland.
The Pentagon’s Northern Command established a task force and said it would be ready to move within 12 hours of landfall, a step that wasn’t taken until 48 hours after Hurricane Katrina came ashore. Ken Rapuano, deputy assistant to the president for homeland security, was monitoring the administration’s response.
President Bush declared states of emergency in Texas and Louisiana.
Early indications were that evacuations were going smoothly. Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said about 1,500 people without personal transportation were bused from the Island Community Center yesterday morning.
“It went extremely well,” Thomas said. “We’re standing by with more buses for people who suddenly decide they want to leave.”
There were glitches. Thomas said buses hired by the Galveston Mental Health Mental Retardation Center didn’t show up, so the city was providing transportation to move about 200 people inland.
But Thomas praised Galvestonians for their response. “People are very committed to getting their families and themselves off the island,” she said. “Everybody, I think, has been extremely calm.”
Galveston officials announced a mandatory evacuation starting at 6 p.m. yesterday and said inbound lanes of the Interstate 45 bridge would be closed to all but emergency traffic. Galveston emergency officials, including the mayor, planned to move to the San Luis Hotel, 37 feet above low tide atop two World War II military bunkers.
In Houston, Mayor Bill White and Harris County Judge Robert Eckels requested evacuation of low-lying areas and mobile-home parks yesterday and said areas along Galveston Bay would be first on the list for mandatory evacuation at 6 a.m. today.
“Use your common sense,” White told a news briefing. “If you’re in a structure that you don’t think can withstand wind damage — and I can tell you if it’s a mobile home, it won’t — please make your plans and leave.”
The Johnson Space Center, in the low-lying Clear Lake area, was closed except for a skeleton crew at noon yesterday.
Several school districts, including Houston ISD, said they would close today and tomorrow. “We don’t know at this point when we’re going to resume classes,” school-district spokesman Terry Abbott said. “There’s no way for us to know.”
Tom Kornegay, executive director of the Port of Houston, said the last loads were being put on ships yesterday as vessels headed to sea to escape the storm. “We’re battening down the hatches, getting the last loads out … not letting more ships in,” Kornegay said.
After suffering sizeable losses during Katrina, several oil refineries shut down, pulling hundreds of workers from offshore rigs. The Texas area accounts for about one-quarter of the nation’s total crude-oil production.
Hospitals also were getting ready, and, where necessary, evacuating patients.
The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston said all except the sickest patients were being moved inland, and that staff backed by generators on the third floor could handle those who remained, officials said.
A spokesman for the Harris County Hospital District in Houston said they were making sure emergency facilities are stocked and ready.
The state’s ability to cope with Rita already is stressed by thousands of evacuees Texas brought in from Hurricane Katrina’s rampage in Louisiana and Mississippi. But Texas appears to be prepared, said David McEntire, assistant professor of emergency administration and planning at the University of North Texas.
“This is a big storm, and the emergency-management system in Texas is already burdened by Katrina,” McEntire said. “But Texas is well-prepared for this event.”
Texas already has begun repositioning disaster-relief supplies and has recalled National Guard forces from Louisiana.
Shelters statewide already had begun moving Katrina evacuees to new homes out of state or in local communities, which will open space for Rita evacuees fleeing inland. Some of those new evacuees will be people who had fled Katrina’s destruction.
“The potential for damage by this storm is significant, and the risk of flooding and tornadoes exists after the hurricane has begun to dissipate,” McEntire said. “… Texas has learned from Louisiana’s example. No one wants to repeat those mistakes.”
Dallas Morning News correspondent David McLemore contributed to this report; the federal response was provided by The Washington Post and Knight Ridder Newspapers.