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Rita weakens, closes in

Rita weakened to Category 3 hurricane on Friday evening and was headed for the upper Texas-Louisiana coast - a course that could spare Houston and Galveston a direct hit.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIM0RE | September 23, 2005

Rita weakened to Category 3 hurricane on Friday evening and was headed for the upper Texas-Louisiana coast - a course that could spare Houston and Galveston a direct hit.

Among the biggest concerns were now Beaumont and Port Arthur, about 75 miles east of Houston.

The port city of Beaumont - home to 114,000 people - has many petrochemical and shipbuilding facilities. Port Arthur - population 58,000 - thrives on oil, shrimping and crawfishing.

Texas emergency managers were predicting Rita would destroy 5,700 homes in the state.

In Louisiana, floodwaters were already leaking into the Ninth Ward of New Orleans at a rate of three inches per minute. When Rita’s rains breached a patched levee, a 30-foot-wide waterfall opened up.

As the storm drew closer, already some people appeared more vulnerable to Rita’s wrath than others. Although about 1 million people left the city of Houston - most battling a traffic-snarled exodus in 100-degree heat - many poor families stayed in the city. Even if Houston escapes a direct hit from the storm, the city will feel some effects from the storm.

Workers at petrochemical plants and other factories in towns along the Louisiana-Texas coastline could also potentially have trouble making ends meet if their homes and workplaces are damaged. In addition to environmental concerns regarding toxic spills, damage to plants also means employees could see at least temporary work stoppages.

Shrimpers and craw-fishers might also be devastated, said some local emergency managers.

As Rita bore down, the mass evacuation nearly became a disaster of its own.

Nearly 2 million people in Texas and Louisiana were urged to get out of the way of the storm. Officials said they gave people more notice than Hurricane Katrina survivors received. But the evacuation still was mired in a 100-mile backup that crept along for hours, leaving many people with cars out of gas, or overheated engines. Temperatures reached 100 degrees, and heat exhaustion and heart attacks caused an unknown number of injuries.

Residents also jammed Houston's two major airports seeking flights inland, including many people who did not have reservations. Adding to problems was a shortage of security screeners, many of whom did not show up for work because they live in areas under mandatory evacuations. Airport officials flew in screeners from other Texas cities.

A bus carrying elderly evacuees caught fire on a gridlocked highway near Dallas, killing as many as 24 people.


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