HOUSTON, AP – Hurricane Rita roared toward the Texas and Louisiana coasts early Friday, a major Category 4 storm that spurred a traffic-snarled exodus toward higher ground and fears it could cripple the heart of the nation”s petrochemical industry.
Forecasters said it appeared Houston and Galveston could avoid a direct hit as Rita veered slightly to the east, threatening its 140-mph winds at the Beaumont and Port Arthur area about 75 miles east of Houston.
The unprecedented flight from the flood-prone Houston area left clogged highways at a near standstill, frustrating hundreds of thousands of people whose cars and tempers were overheating.
"It can”t get much worse, 100 yards an hour," steamed Willie Bayer, 70, who was heading out of Houston and trying to get to Sulphur Springs in far northeast Texas. "It”s frustrating bumper-to-bumper."
The first rain bands were expected before nightfall Friday with the full fury of Rita expected into Saturday. 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.
State officials scrambled to reroute several inbound highways to accommodate outbound traffic, but many people were waiting so long they ran out of gas and were forced to park.
"We know you”re out there," Houston Mayor Bill White said of the congestion that extended well into Louisiana. "We understand there”s been fuel shortages."
Texas Army National Guard trucks were escorted by police to directly provide motorists with gasoline. The state was also working to get more than 200,000 gallons of gas to fuel-starved stations in the Houston area.
By late Thursday night, the traffic was at least moving slowly, but was still backed up for about 100 miles in what White called "one of the largest mass evacuations in American history."
Nearly 2 million people along the Texas and Louisiana coasts were urged to get out of the way of Rita, a storm that weakened Thursday from a top-of-the-scale Category 5 hurricane.
"Hopefully, we will get lucky and it goes into a part of Texas or Louisiana where there is not a lot of people or any buildings," Houston businessman Tillman Fertitta said.
At 5 a.m. EDT, Rita was centered about 290 miles southeast of Galveston and was moving to the west-northwest at near 9 mph. Its winds were near 140 mph, down from 175 mph earlier in the day.
Hurricane warnings were in effect from Port O”Connor, Texas, to Morgan City, La., and the National Hurricane Center forecast the storm would make landfall as a "dangerous hurricane of at least Category 3 intensity."
Tropical storm warnings also were in effect east and north to include New Orleans, still crippled by Hurricane Katrina. Rita”s steady rains Thursday were the first since Katrina and the forecast was for 3 to 5 inches in the coming days — dangerously close to the amount engineers said could send floodwaters pouring back into recently dry neighborhoods.
"Hurricane Rita is a very dangerous storm," said New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. "We”re not letting our guards down."
The Army Corps of Engineers added sandbags to shore up New Orleans” levees and installed 60-foot sections of metal across some of the city”s canals to protect against storm surges.
About 5,000 soldiers and National Guard members remain in the city, along with about 1,400 police officers, Nagin said. "We should be in pretty good shape from a law enforcement standpoint as we move forward."
Oliver Lucius left New Orleans with his family after Katrina and was beginning to build a life in Corpus Christi. He and his wife had found jobs and their children were enrolled in local schools. Then came Rita.
"It was just settling in that I was there for the hurricane, and then I came here," said Ariel Lucius, 13, Oliver”s daughter. "Now it seems like a dream."
The Texas and Louisiana coast is home to the nation”s biggest concentration of oil refineries. Environmentalists warned of the possibility of a toxic spill from the 87 chemical plants and petroleum installations that represent more than one-fourth of U.S. refining capacity.
Petrochemical plants began shutting and hundreds of workers were evacuated from offshore oil rigs. Texas Gov. Rick Perry said state officials had been in contact with plants that are "taking appropriate procedures to safeguard their facilities."
The usually bustling tourist island of Galveston — rebuilt after as many as 12,000 people died in a 1900 hurricane — was all but abandoned, with at least 90 percent of its 58,000 residents cleared out.
The last major hurricane to strike the Houston area was Category-3 Alicia in 1983. It flooded downtown Houston, spawned 22 tornadoes and left 21 people dead.
At Houston”s Johnson Space Center, NASA evacuated its staff, powered down the computers at Mission Control and turned the international space station over to the Russian space agency.
Parts of Houston simply emptied out. Plastic grocery bags shrouding abandoned gasoline pumps rustled in the breeze. Freeways usually jammed around the clock were clear for miles. Acres of normally packed parking lots surrounding malls, schools and factories were bare.
Katrina”s death toll in Louisiana rose to 832 on Thursday, pushing the body count to at least 1,069 across the Gulf Coast. But workers under contract to the state to collect the bodies were taken off the streets of New Orleans because of the approaching storm.
In southwestern Louisiana, up to 500,000 residents along the state”s southwest coast were urged to evacuate and state officials planned to send in buses to take refugees.
The U.S. mainland has not been hit by two Category 4 storms in the same year since 1915. Katrina came ashore Aug. 29 as a Category 4.
"Katrina. It”s scared everyone," said Dianna Soileau, 29, who was fleeing the refinery town of Texas City with her husband and two children. "We don”t want to be the same thing."