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Hurricane Rita Lashes Storm-Weary Gulf Coast

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
September 24, 2005
 
The storm-tattered Gulf Coast took another direct hit from a powerful
hurricane when Hurricane Rita made landfall in southwestern Louisiana
early this morning with winds approaching 120 miles an hour (190
kilometers an hour).

Heavy damage and flooding were reported in Cameron Parish, Louisiana, where the hurricane's eye came ashore with a 20-foot (6-meter) storm surge around 3:30 a.m. EDT. The western border of Cameron Parish is on the Texas-Louisiana boundary. After striking Cameron Parish, Rita's eye moved northwest into Texas.

Authorities don't yet know whether anyone was directly killed by Hurricane Rita. Yesterday, at least 24 senior citizens who evacuated their nursing home in a Houston suburb died when their bus caught fire and burst into flames on Interstate 45 near Dallas.

Today's storm destruction wasn't confined to the coast. Extensive damage was also reported in Lake Charles, Louisiana, which is about 30 miles (50 kilometers) inland.

"We've had numerous reports of winds of over 100 miles [160 kilometers] per hour," said Mike Marcotte, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Lake Charles.

Lake Charles was not affected by Hurricane Rita's storm surge, however, Marcotte said.

Houston, Galveston Spared

Heavy damage from winds and flooding was also reported in the Texas port cities of Beaumont and Port Arthur.

But the heavily populated cities of Houston and Galveston, which sat in Rita's bulls eye several days ago, were spared the worst of the hurricane's pounding. Rita's threat to that area prompted a mass evacuation that clogged highways as millions of coastal residents drove inland to avoid the storm.

Bill Read, meteorologist in charge of the Houston-Galveston National Weather Service office, said those cities experienced a few wind gusts of about 75 miles an hour (120 kilometers an hour).

Earlier this week, Hurricane Rita exploded into the third-most powerful hurricane on record for the Atlantic Basin. At that time, the storm's strongest winds were blowing at 175 miles an hour (280 kilometers an hour) and Rita seemed headed for a landfall in Galveston Bay.

As the storm churned westward, local officials feared a repeat of the spectacular tragedy of 1900, when a powerful hurricane came ashore at Galveston and killed at least 6,000.

But Hurricane Rita turned northward so that the worst of the storm missed Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city. Still, the hurricane caused damage in Galveston.

"The biggest problem we had was a series of fires that started when power lines came down on buildings. It burned several buildings in Galveston," Read said.

New Orleans Levees Rupture

Hurricane Rita also caused more problems in New Orleans, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina last month. Levees protecting New Orleans from the waters of Lake Pontchartrain gave way during Hurricane Katrina and flooded about 80 percent of the city.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had patched the levees and pumped the water out of the city. But Hurricane Rita sent a seven-foot (two-meter) storm surge into Louisiana's eastern coast, and the weakened levees weren't able to withstand the surge. The levees ruptured in several places yesterday, spilling new floodwaters into parts of New Orleans.

Although Hurricane Rita has moved inland and started to weaken, the storm is expected to continue causing havoc in a part of the country known as Arklatex— the area where the Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas borders meet.

As the storm weakens, its rainfall will increase dramatically. The remnants of Hurricane Rita are expected to stall for two to four days over the region.

"It'll sit and spin and dump rain until there's a system to the west that has to migrate east," said Paul Trotter, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Slidell, Louisiana. "Once that happens, we'll get some sort of reprieve."

But the massive rainfall, which could total as much as 2 feet (60 centimeters), will trigger severe flooding, Trotter said.

Record Season

Hurricane Rita is the fifth powerful hurricane to strike the Gulf Coast since August 2004, when Hurricane Charley came ashore at Punta Gorda on the west coast of the Florida peninsula.

Several tropical storms also have struck the Gulf Coast, and although these storms weren't as powerful as hurricanes, they still inflicted significant damage.

The relentless pounding of the stormy summers is taking its toll on the psyches of Gulf Coast residents.

"The storms and winds have really caused tremendous aggravation and problems," Trotter said. "It's a strain, not only on your psyche but on your resources, whether it's money, housing, food. Your way of life has changed. You don't have the parts of your life that you normally have—stores, jobs, agriculture, fishing, the things that make your life fruitful."

"In other areas of the country, life still goes on," he added. "But we're being reduced to a third-world country right now until we get transportation and resources."

Because of the massive damage inflicted on New Orleans, the 2005 hurricane season will become the most expensive on record. And the season doesn't end until November 30.

Willie Drye is author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic Books.

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