Though currently a Category 5 storm — the strongest type of hurricane — forecasters say Rita may be weaken to a Category 3, a storm with winds up to 130 mph, by the time it reaches land late Friday or early Saturday.
Despite hopes that the storm would not pack the punch of Katrina, which ravaged the Louisiana and Mississippi coast three weeks ago, the hurricane still had the potential to be one of the worst to strike the Lone Star State in generations. That fact was enough to prompt widespread evacuations from the region.
Passengers on Houston-bound planes Wednesday night could see the hundreds of thousands of taillights crawling north out of the Houston area. Texas Gov. Rick Perry took the unprecedented step of opening all 8 lanes of Interstate 45 to northbound traffic.
Local officials have made the necessity of evacuation clear.
“Now is not the time for warnings. Now is a time for action,” Houston Mayor Bill White told the Associated Press. “There is no good place to put a shelter that could take a direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane. I don’t want anybody out there watching this and thinking that somebody is bound to open a local school for me on Friday, not with a hurricane packing these kinds of winds.”
With bumper-to-bumper traffic extending 100 miles north of the city, many gas stations reportedly ran out of gas. Shoppers along the way emptied grocery store shelves of nonperishable items.
Houston also heeded the lessons of Katrina, where buses were provided for those without transportation and hospitals and nursing homes were emptied. Also, truckloads of water, ice and ready-made meals, as well as rescue and medical teams were put on standby by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose sluggish response was criticized in the wake of Katrina.
In the coastal city of Galveston, which sits on an island 8 feet above sea level, nearly every resident was gone by Wednesday evening. City Manager Steve LeBlanc sad the storm surge could reach 50 feet. Galveston’s protecting seawall is just 17 feet tall.
“[It’s] not a good picture for us,” he told the AP.
Galveston was nearly wiped off the map and more than 6,000 people died, after a hurricane in 1900. The seawall was built after that storm but only protects part of the island.
Also on Wednesday, crude oil prices rose sharply, buoyed by fears that Rita would destroy oil installations. Texas accounts for 25 percent of the nation’s total oil output.
The U.S. mainland has never been hit by a Category 4 and 5 in the same season. Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed parts of Louisiana and Mississippi when it hit land Aug. 29, was a Category 4.