BEAUMONT, Texas, AP -Hurricane Rita plowed into the Gulf Coast early Saturday, lashing Texas and Louisiana with driving rain, igniting the pre-dawn sky with exploding transformers and threatening to flood the low-lying region.
Rita made landfall at 3:38 a.m. EDT as a Category 3 storm just east of Sabine Pass, on the Texas-Louisiana line, bringing a 20-foot storm surge and up to 25 inches of rain, the National Hurricane Center said.
The storm spread worries it would dump nearly 2 feet of rain on flood-prone parts of Texas and Louisiana, spurring tornadoes as it churned northwest at 12 mph with winds topping 120 mph.
Asked how Rita compared with the earlier devastating hit of Hurricane Katrina, Max Mayfield, director of the hurricane center, said: "It”s not as powerful, not as large and it did not hit as populated an area."
Officials estimated at least 90 percent of surrounding Jefferson County residents had heeded warnings that a storm surge could submerge swaths of the low-lying county — including the seawall-and-levee-protected city of Port Arthur, near Sabine Pass.
Windows blew out in the lobby of a hotel in Beaumont, near where the storm made landfall, and shards of glass and pieces of trees were strewn throughout the flooding lobby, Houston”s KHOU-TV reported.
More than 450,000 CenterPoint Energy customers in Texas were without power in the company”s service area, which stretches from Galveston into Houston north to Humble, company spokeswoman Patricia Frank said. Entergy spokesman David Caplan said about 55,000 of its Texas customers in the storm-affected area were without electricity.
Rita”s heaviest rains — up to 3 to 4 inches an hour — fell in Lake Charles, La., as the storm made landfall, National Weather Service meteorologist Patrick Omundson of Shreveport said. Other heavy rain was falling in a band from Woodville, Texas, east to Leesville-Alexandria in Louisiana at a rate of about one-half inch per hour.
Rescuers were forced to wait until the winds outside died down to safe levels before starting searches and sending out military meals, water and fuel.
"We”ve been getting a few calls from people who say, ”Hey, can you get me out or check on me afterwards?” and the answer is we”ll check on you afterwards," said Robin Martin, who runs the emergency dispatch center in Lake Charles.
The storm brought chaos even far from its path. Rain in New Orleans re-ruptured levees that were broken by Hurricane Katrina, bringing renewed flooding to that city. South of Dallas, a bus of Rita evacuees caught fire in gridlocked traffic, killing as many as 24 nursing home residents who thought they were getting out of harm”s way.
In Galveston, about 100 miles away from the storm”s eye, a fire erupted in the historic Strand district late Friday. Wind-whipped flames leapt across three buildings. City manager Steve LeBlanc said the blaze could have been caused by downed power lines.
"It was like a war zone, shooting fire across the street," Fire Chief Michael Varela said Saturday.
As the storm raged, the torches of oil refineries could still be seen burning in the distance from downtown Beaumont. Officials worried about the storm”s threat to those facilities and chemical plants strung along the Texas and Louisiana coast.
The facilities represent a quarter of the nation”s oil refining capacity and business analysts said damage from Rita could send gas prices as high as $4 an hour. Environmentalists warned of the risk of a toxic spill.
As Rita approached, its powerful rains and winds sent water gushing over one of New Orleans” patched levees and into the already-devastated Lower Ninth Ward and parts of neighboring St. Bernard Parish. The water rose to waist level.
"Our worst fears came true," said Maj. Barry Guidry, a National Guardsman on duty in the Ninth Ward. Another levee could not protect homes in the Gentilly neighborhood, now under 6 to 8 inches of water.
In the days before the storm”s arrival, hundreds of thousands of residents of Texas and Louisiana fled their homes in a mass exodus of 2.8 million people that produced gridlock and heartbreak.
Grocery shelves were emptied, gas stations ran out of fuel and motorists had to push their cars to the side of highways after idling for hours in stuck traffic and running out of gas.
Nearly 1,300 patients were airlifted out of an airport near Beaumont in a rush Thursday night and Friday morning, but only after the county”s top official made a panicked call to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson for help.
"We had patients throwing up. It was very ugly," said Jefferson County Judge Carl Griffith, who blamed delays on the Transportation Security Administration, which insisted every wheelchair-bound passenger be checked with a metal-detector.
As clouds thickened over Beaumont and Port Arthur on Friday afternoon and rain began to fall, only a handful of residents were still in what had become near-ghost towns. About 95,000 homes and businesses in Texas lost power, most along the coast.
Kandy Huffman had no way to leave, and she pushed her broken-down car down the street to her home with plans to ride out the storm in Port Arthur, where the streetlights were turned off and stores were boarded up.
"All you can do is pray for best," she said as a driving rain started to fall. "We”re surrounded by the people we love. Even if we have to all cuddle up, we know where everybody is."
Late Friday, southwestern Louisiana was soaked by driving rain and coastal flooding. Sugarcane fields, ranches and marshlands were already under water at dusk in coastal Cameron Parish.
The sparsely populated region was almost completely evacuated, but authorities rushed to the aid of a man who had decided to ride out the storm in a house near the Gulf of Mexico after one of man”s friends called for help. They were turned back by flooded roads.
Empty coastal highways and small towns were blasted with wind-swept rain. A metal hurricane evacuation route sign along one road wagged violently in the wind, and clumps of cattle huddled in fields.
Steve Rinard, a meteorologist in Lake Charles, said he could not keep count of the tornado warnings across southern Louisiana. "They were just popping up like firecrackers," he said.
In Tyler, about 100 miles southeast of Dallas, officials said their shelters were full and refugees who continued to arrive from the south were being directed elsewhere. About 3,700 people were housed in 23 packed county shelters.
President Bush, mindful of criticism the federal government was slow to respond to Katrina, planned to visit his home state Saturday. He will go to the state”s emergency operations center in Austin and then to San Antonio.
In southwestern Louisiana, which was on the vulnerable east side of Rita and expected to get the brunt of a 20-foot storm surge, high winds knocked over old live oaks and lashed the low-lying landscape with driving winds.
In Lake Charles, home to the nation”s 12th-largest seaport and refineries run by ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Citgo and Shell, nearly all 70,000 residents had evacuated. Several riverboat casinos that mostly serve tourists from Texas also closed ahead of the storm.
"We see these storms a little differently after Katrina," said city administrator Paul Rainwater. "We all realize that no matter how safe you feel … you have to take it seriously, you have to plan."
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said over 90 percent of residents in southwestern parishes, about 150,000 people, had evacuated. For those who had not, she issued a warning: "Get to the highest ground or the highest building in your area."
Some residents of southwest Louisiana were headed to a shelter in Lafayette, joining evacuees from Hurricane Katrina who had been there nearly a month.
"I am thankful for my life and that we are all safe," said Blanche Edgarson, 53, of Plaquemines Parish, an area that was devastated by Katrina. "But I”m very depressed, and I don”t know where we will go from here."