HOUSTON (AP) – Hurricane Rita closed in on the nation’s fourth-largest city and the heart of the U.S. oil-refining industry with howling 145 mph winds Thursday, sending hundreds of thousands of people fleeing in a frustratingly slow, bumper-to-bumper exodus.
“This is the worst planning I’ve ever seen,” said Julie Anderson, who covered just 45 miles in 12 hours after setting out from her home in the Houston suburb of LaPorte. “They say we’ve learned a lot from Hurricane Katrina. Well, you couldn’t prove it by me.”
In all, nearly 2 million people along the Texas and Louisiana coasts were urged to get out of the way of Rita, a 400-mile-wide storm that weakened Thursday from a top-of-the-scale Category 5 hurricane to a Category 4 as it swirled across the Gulf of Mexico.
It also made a sharper-than-expected turn to the right late in the afternoon, on a course that could spare Houston and nearby Galveston a direct hit and send it instead toward Port Arthur, Texas, or Lake Charles, La., at least 60 miles up the coast, by late Friday or early Saturday.
But it was still an extremely dangerous storm – and one aimed at a section of coastline with the nation’s biggest concentration of oil refineries. Environmentalists warned of the possibility of a toxic spill from the 87 industrial plants and storage installations that represent more than one-fourth of U.S. refining capacity.
Rita also brought rain to already-battered New Orleans, raising fears that the city’s Katrina-damaged levees would fail and flood the city all over again.
At 5 p.m. EDT, Rita was centered about 405 miles southeast of Galveston and was moving at near 9 mph. Its winds were near 140 mph, down from 175 mph earlier in the day. Forecasters predicted it would come ashore somewhere along a 350-mile stretch of the Texas and Louisiana coast that includes Port Arthur near the midpoint.
Forecasters warned of the possibility of a storm surge of 15 to 20 feet, battering waves, and rain of up to 15 inches along the Texas and western Louisiana coast.
The evacuation was a traffic nightmare, with red brakelights streaming out of Houston and its low-lying suburbs as far as the eye could see. Highways leading inland out of Houston, a metropolitan area of 4 million people, were clogged for up to 100 miles north of the city.