Thursday, September 22


Hurricane Rita, having made a jog late last evening turning its track more in the direction of Freeport, rather than Matagorda, Texas, changed direction again over night and now this morning has Galveston near dead center in its sights -- the hurricane track's "cone of uncertainty" beginning to narrow and the center of that band eyeballing the extremely vulnerable Galveston Island.

" News for Houston"" is reporting this morning that "Galveston Bay is now in center of cone." (Click on the hypertext at the top-center of its web page). "" reports: "Rita's 175 MPH Winds Take Aim At Galveston." (Click on the hypertext near the top-center of its web page).

The "Houston Chronicle" (registration required) advises its readers: "Powerful Rita takes aim at Galaveston." The Associated Press (AP) story carried in the Chronicle (excerpts follow) reports:

The storms projected path has shifted northward toward Galveston and Houston, but it remains too early to say where it will make landfall early Saturday. The entire Texas coast remains vulnerable.

Galveston, Corpus Christi and surrounding Nueces County, low-lying parts of Houston, and New Orleans were under mandatory evacuation orders as Category 5 Rita drew energy from balmy gulf waters.

Forecasters said Rita could be the strongest hurricane on record to ever hit Texas. Only three Category 5 hurricanes, the highest on the scale, are known to have hit the U.S. mainland — most recently, Andrew, which smashed South Florida in 1992.

At 5 a.m. EDT Thursday, Rita was centered about 515 miles east-southeast of Galveston and was moving west near 9 mph. Forecasters predicted it would come ashore along the central Texas coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi.

The U.S. mainland has never been hit by both a Category 4 and a Category 5 in the same season. Katrina at one point became a Category 5 storm, but weakened slightly to a Category 4 just before coming ashore.

Highways and interstates remain clogged this morning throughout the greater Houston area. As the Houston Chronicle's Melanie Markley and Allan Turner report:

With many of the primary evacuation routes from Hurricane Rita looking like parking lots this morning, preparations began to reverse the flow of inbound lanes of I-45, I-10 and U.S. 290.

Traffic reporters were reporting predawn drive times ranging from 4 to 13 hours from Friendswood to Conroe as mandatory evacuations in Galveston, the Clear Lake area and neighborhoods along the Houston Ship Channel put hundreds of thousands of motorists on Houston's freeways.

I-45 was worse: The freeway, which runs from Galveston through Houston and on toward Dallas, slows to a craw beginning just inside the tollway, through downtown and past Interstate 610 on the north side. Even the Hardy Toll Road, usually a relief valve from I-45 was just creeping along, according to Transtar reports.

It appears, at least at this juncture, that the only hope for the densely-populated Galveston-Houston area is for Rita to continue to make north-northeast turns in direction so that landfall would be to the east of the area and placing it on the so-called "dry side" of the system. For now, however, the picture appears bleak and the Perfect Storm appears set to strike the nation's fourth largest city with a fury that may easily eclipse Katrina.

This was the cataclysmic, worst-case scenario that the Houston Chronicle published on Tuesday of this week (excerpts follow):

Houston's perfect storm would feed on late summer's warm waters as it barreled northward across the Gulf of Mexico, slamming into the coast near Freeport.

A landfall here would allow its powerful upper-right quadrant, where the waves move in the same direction as the storm, to overflow Galveston Bay. Within an hour or two, a storm surge, topping out at 20 feet or more, would flood the homes of 600,000 people in Harris County. The surge also would block the natural drainage of flooded inland bayous and streams for a day or more.

Meanwhile, as the storm moved over western Harris County, its most dangerous winds, well in excess of 120 mph even inland, would lash the Interstate 45 corridor, including Clear Lake, the Texas Medical Center and downtown.

Many older buildings could not withstand such winds.

Anything not tied down, from trees to mobile homes to light poles, would become missiles, surreally tumbling and flying through the air, flattening small houses, shattering skyscraper windows and puncturing roofs.

Of the 17 Category 4 and Category 5 storms that have struck the United States since 1900, three, all Category 4 storms, have hit the Greater Houston area -- unnamed storms in 1900 and 1915 and Carla in 1961.

With considerable coastal development since then and lower elevations because of groundwater pumping, no one knows what will happen when a major storm hits. But what's clear is that models of a hurricane's three modes of destruction -- winds, storm surge and inland flooding from heavy rainfall -- offer little comfort.

With sustained winds between 131 mph and 155 mph, the power of a Category 4 storm exceeds that of most building codes.

All we can do now is prepare, pray, and, where warranted, evacuate.