Wednesday, September 21

CATEGORY 4 RITA TAKING DEAD AIM AT TEXAS GULF COAST

Hurricane Rita has become a Category 4 hurricane, according to this report in this morning's edition of the "Houston Chronicle" (registration required), and current computer modeling has the path of this burgeoning, potentially catastrophic storm bearing down on the Gulf Coast of Texas and western Louisiana.

Hurricane Rita intensified into a Category 4 storm today with winds of 135 mph, deepening concerns that the storm could devastate coastal Texas and already-battered Louisiana by week's end.

Mandatory evacuations have already been ordered for New Orleans and Galveston today, one day after Rita skirted past the Florida Keys as a Category 2 storm, causing minimal damage.

At 8 a.m. EDT, Rita's eye was about 195 miles west of Key West. The storm was moving west at 14 mph — a track that kept the most destructive winds at sea and away from Key West. Maximum sustained winds increased to near 135 mph.

"There's still plenty of warm water that it needs to move over in the next couple days. The forecast is favorable for further intensification," Michelle Mainelli, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center, said earlier.

Those were words that Gulf coast residents certainly did not want to hear. Even those who had survived major hurricanes were getting ready to leave, not wanting to challenge Rita's potential wrath or cling to hope that they'd be spared in the same manner the Keys were.

The Chronicle's "Hurricane Rita" blog provides updated information on this storm system that has a good probability of striking the Houston-Galveston area late Friday or early Saturday of this week. Indeed, mandatory evacuations of Galveston and Brazoria counties will commence today and emergency shelters in Huntsville and College Station (northwest of Houston) have already begun accepting evacuees.

The online edition of the Chronicle provides a compendium of important links for its readers in anticipation of Hurricane Rita's assault on the Texas coastline. Houston-Galveston have not seen a hurricane for over 20 years now (although Tropical Storm Allison sat over the area in June, 2001, causing serious, widespread flooding) since Alicia struck in August, 1983; but what still is the most castastrophic hurricane to ever strike the United States in terms of the total number of deaths (6,000+), and even in the wake of Katrina, hit Galveston like a bomb in September, 1900.

My wife made her first house-hunting trip to Houston in early June of 2001, a trip we purposefully arranged to coincide with our wedding anniversary. That was the weekend that Tropical Storm Allison struck. That was the weekend in which the hotel we were staying in took in flooded-out evacuees; the weekend in which the lobby of the high-rise building my offices were in was flooded; the weekend it rained so hard we thought the windows in our hotel room would burst; the weekend that we could range by car in any direction from our hotel base camp and find flooding impossible to traverse within a mere half-dozen blocks; the weekend that the rain and flooding literally stripped concrete from Interstate 10 and in which countless Houston-area underpasses became deadly lakes.

So here we go again, it appears. And one of my sisters is scheduled to arrive midday Friday for her first-ever visit to our home north of Houston. She's on business in Pennsylvania this week and routed herself back through Houston before returning to the West Coast Sunday night. We spoke last night and, if current tracking forecasts prove to be correct, she'll be obliged to change flight arrangments to avoid Houston. Come Friday, inbound flights to Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport could be severely delayed or cancelled. And the route I would take to fetch her and return her to our home is Interstate 45, which is the major evacuation artery out of Galveston and Harris County. It could be in a state of gridlock by then! As a matter of fact, in June, 2001, during Allison's deluge, I-45 at Conroe became so severely flooded that traffic came to a standstill and people were trapped in their automobiles overnight.

IMPORTANT FOLLOW-UP: Kevin Whited of "blogHouston.net" puts up an important, must-read post for people in Galveston, Brazoria, and Harris counties, and particularly for newcomers to southeast Texas who may not be experienced in dealing with hurricane threats.