Gulf Coast cities empty as Hurricane Rita approaches

A mass exodus from the deadly threat of Hurricane Rita emptied towns along the Texas and Louisiana coastlines on Friday, amid frantic last-minute preparations for the second super-storm in a month.

With Rita expected to hit the Gulf Coast late on Friday, more than one million people piled into cars and buses with whatever they could carry, creating monumental traffic jams on all roads heading inland.

The port city of Galveston, scene of the worst US natural disaster when a similar storm hit 105 years ago, was virtually empty early on Friday. Only the most hardy survivors from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina on August 29 stayed in New Orleans.

Residents also fled most other cities and towns on a 500km stretch of coast from Port O’Connor in Texas to Morgan City in Louisiana, which is under a formal hurricane warning.

The storm claimed its first victim before it even hit land when an elderly woman died of apparent heat exhaustion while stuck in a massive traffic jam of Texas evacuees on Thursday.

Some vehicles that had run out of gas were abandoned on the highway.

“We’ve got no gas. We’re dealing with heat exhaustion, heart attacks,” Sheriff Randy Smith of Waller County, Texas told local a television station shortly after midnight.

Smith worried many of the stranded motorists would not make it inland fast enough to escape the hurricane, and was frustrated by the lack of coordination with state officials.

Rita lost some power on Thursday as it tore through the oil fields of the Gulf of Mexico, but at 9am GMT on Friday was still packing powerful maximum sustained winds of 220km per hour, with higher gusts, according to the US National Hurricane Centre.

The eye of Rita was located about 467km southeast of Galveston and moving in a northwestern direction at 15km per hour.

“On this track the core of Rita will be approaching the southwest Louisiana and upper Texas coasts late today [Friday] or tonight,” the Hurricane Centre said in a statement.

“Rita is an extremely dangerous category four hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale,” the statement read, adding that “isolated tornadoes are possible today over portions of southeastern Texas and southern Louisiana.”

Katrina also a category four on the five-level scale when it hit Louisiana and Mississippi.
The toll from Katrina rose to 1 066 on Thursday with many more bodies expected to be found.

US authorities kept up an intense campaign to get residents away from the coastal zone this time—while the governors of Texas and Louisiana asked for 40 000 federal troops to be sent to help with any relief operation.

“This is a big dangerous storm, it is a massive storm, it covers half of the Gulf of Mexico,” said David Paulison, acting head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema).

President George Bush, yet to shake off criticism of his leadership during the Katrina crisis, warned that officials “at every level of government are preparing for the worst.”

Tens of thousands of people jammed roads out of Galveston, where between 8 000 and 12 000 people were killed by the 1900 storm. Computer projections warn that the city, built on a low-lying barrier island, could be swallowed up by a flood tide.

Galveston city manager Steven Leblanc estimated that 90% of the city’s 60 000 residents fled inland. “It feels like a ghost town to me, and that’s a good thing,” he said.

Galveston city managers said they would ride out the storm in a beach front hotel built atop two World War II bunkers.

In Houston, 80km to the north, drivers jammed the I-45 highway out of the city, with reports of 14 hour delays, 30km tailbacks and severe gas shortages.

Scores of hospitals along the evacuation routes out of Houston early on Friday closed their doors to new patients after they were swamped with heat exhaustion victims after temperatures reached 37°C.

Regional shelters were already full, and many people slept in the cars outside overbooked hotels.

Air traffic in and out of the busy Houston airports will halt at noon (5pm GMT), ahead of Rita’s expected landfall.

In Louisiana, Governor Kathleen Blanco pleaded with people to head north, as the first heavy rain from Rita fell on New Orleans late on Thursday.

She worried that even a glancing blow from any Rita flood tide could overwhelm patched-up levees busted by Katrina. “We think that there is still possibility of flooding,” said Blanco.

Alarm mounted in the oil industry, still recovering from disabled production caused by Katrina.

A quarter of US oil operations are based in the Gulf of Mexico area. BP, Shell and other oil companies evacuated more than 600 oil platforms and rigs. Seventy percent of US oil production in the Gulf has been halted. - AFP

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