Hurricane Rita Web Log


This Web log on Hurricane Rita was designed to help readers stay up-to-date on the various strands of this developing story. Sources include NPR News staff, The Associated Press and other news sources. We'll continue to post stories about Rita on our regular hurricane news page. You can follow it here. We'll continue to monitor and report on its aftermath.

September 24, 2005

Widespread Power Outages Along Gulf Coast

Federal officials say damage from Hurricane Rita was less than feared, and so far no storm-related fatalities have been reported. Still, several areas along the Gulf Coast experienced significant damage and flooding. Over a million people in Texas and Louisiana were without power, according to the Associated Press.

President Bush declared a major disaster in Texas and Louisiana, making residents eligible for federal aid, NPR's Debbie Elliott reported. The president, along with local authorities, was urging citizens of the stricken region to refrain from returning until they were given permission to do so.

8:37 p.m. EDT | Sept. 24, 2005 | permalink

Port Fourchon: Cautious Relief

"We're in good shape for the shape we're in," Ted Falgout of Port Fourchon, La., tells NPR's Debbie Elliott. Port Fourchon is the gateway for much of the oil and gas production in the Western Gulf. Falgout, the port's director, says he has had reports that damage has been relatively light, but access has been hampered by flooding.

Falgout says that because Rita's winds were not as bad as Katrina's, more of the port's power line infrastructure has been left intact, although there is no power. What isn't yet known is the condition of the road leading into Port Fourchon. Until the water recedes, Falgout will not know whether there was any serious undermining or breaches for the roadway.

MORE: Extent of Damage at Port Fourchon Unclear

7:16 p.m. EDT | Sept. 24, 2005 | permalink

Katrina Evacuees Share Shelter with Those Fleeing Rita

Joquita Stevens braids her brother Don's hair at a shelter in Austin. The family has been there since fleeing Hurricane Katrina.
Joquita Stevens braids her brother Don's hair at a shelter in Austin. The family has been there since fleeing Hurricane Katrina. · Credit: Paul Heltzel, NPR

The Stevens family of New Orleans has been housed by the American Red Cross since Hurricane Katrina. It's been almost four weeks now. "We lost everything, but thank God our lives were saved," said Solome Stevens. NPR's Paul Heltzel interviewed the Stevenses at an evacuee center set up by the Red Cross at the William B. Travis High School in Austin, Texas. They were joined there by hundreds of other people who traveled hours from evacuated cities near the Gulf Coast before Hurricane Rita's arrival.

The Stevens family didn't have an easy trip from New Orleans. They escaped their flooded neighborhood on air mattresses -- ones much like those they're now sleeping on in the Austin relief center. They finally found refuge on a New Orleans highway until they got a ride to Austin and safety at the high school. The children were finding some measure of comfort there. As her grandmother spoke to Heltzel, Joquita Stevens was braiding her brother Don's hair in front of a stage in the gymnasium.

Karry Ponce, the shelter manager at Travis High, said the Red Cross planned to set up five shelters in Austin, but instead opened 36, to serve some 4,500 people. Ponce said she had called in local police officers, mindful of the reports of violence in New Orleans against people seeking shelter after Hurricane Katrina. "I've got babies here," Ponce said. "I don't play around."

--David Folkenflik

5:12 p.m. EDT | Sept. 24, 2005 | permalink

New Orleans Mayor: Flooding Limited

The top of a truck is seen above floodwaters in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Sept. 24, 2005.
The top of a truck is seen above floodwaters in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Sept. 24, 2005. · Credit: Reuters

Talk about a guy having a rough month. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin says he's pretty sure that the walls are holding up along the city's key canals despite the arrival of what is now Tropical Storm Rita.

"The flooding seems to be contained, if you will, in the lower Ninth Ward," Nagin said at a press conference this afternoon. But he took special care to contradict the complaints of a city council member who called for the city's pumps to be turned back on. Those pumps were supposed to deal with floodwaters from the levees -- not rainwater, the mayor said. And Nagin said it would do too much harm to turn on those pumps right now.

"Please, please, do not send out information to the public until you are fully armed with the facts," Nagin said.

It's probably going to be two or three weeks until the floodwaters in New Orleans recede to the point they were at before Rita hit the Gulf Coast. That's according to Mitch Frazier, a public affairs officer for the Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans. He says the biggest problems have been in the lower Ninth Ward.

--David Folkenflik

MORE: New Flooding Hits Ninth Ward

4:34 p.m. EDT | Sept. 24, 2005 | permalink

Planning for Normalcy in Houston

There are stirrings that suggest Houston will return to everyday life fairly soon. The Houston Astros, barely ahead of the pack in the race for the National League's wildcard berth, will be able to play their final series of the regular season at home next weekend. It appears there was minimal damage to the roof of Minute Maid Park, The Associated Press reports.

Over at Rice University, staffers are asked to return Monday, and classes are scheduled to resume Tuesday. There was only minimal debris -- just the stray downed branch, Rice President David W. Leebron wrote in a note on the campus Web site. There were no floods, no consequential loss of power, and Leebron wrote, "We served the undergraduates a continental breakfast and have adequate food."

That doesn't mean everything's back to normal quite yet. The Houston Zoo's Orangutan Birthday Celebration was canceled due to the storm. It had been scheduled from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. today (Central Time). No makeup date has been announced.

--David Folkenflik

3:40 p.m. EDT | Sept. 24, 2005 | permalink

Rita Evacuees Stuck in Lufkin

The American Red Cross is housing about 500 evacuees in Lufkin, Texas. They're staying in the gym of Angelina College -- yes, that's the home of the Road Runners. Most of the evacuees are from places to the south -- such as Galveston, Beaumont or Port Arthur -- usually about three hours or so drive away. NPR's Lizzie O'Leary is there, and she told me it took people 12 to 24 hours to get to Lufkin, as they sat in traffic. About 32,000 people live in Lufkin, and at least 10,000 people are getting temporary sanctuary there now in official Red Cross shelters. Many more may be in private homes and churches.

At the college (motto: "a great place to start"), there's no electricity or water right now, so things are getting a little sticky. A minister led a prayer service earlier. O'Leary says children are skittering across the gym floor, batting beach balls and calling to each other. This morning, things were tense because there was a tornado warning for Lufkin, and volunteers were ready to shepherd people into hallways from the main arena area. But the tornado never materialized.

Houston Mayor Bill White had earlier told people they can't return to his city because the region has little gasoline for them to get there -- and Houston has none for them to fill up their cars once they arrive. The same is true in Lufkin, O'Leary said: "They're all out of gas. A lot of people got stuck here, even though the shelters were full and officials told them to keep going on. They opened two more shelters just because they had so many people." Gas stations reported looooooong lines, and several people there told O'Leary about fistfights breaking out. But volunteers are trying to brace evacuees for two hard realizations: once the storm has completely passed, and they're allowed back home, their houses may be in bad shape. And, for the moment, there's no gas to fill up their cars for the return drive anyway.

--David Folkenflik

3:13 p.m. EDT | Sept. 24, 2005 | permalink

Insurance Estimates: Rita Damage Well Below Katrina

When it comes to wreaking havoc on the Gulf Coast, Rita -- thank goodness -- is no Katrina. Robert Hartwig, chief economist for the Insurance Information Institute, tells NPR's Emily Barocas that Rita's damages are likely to cost $4 billion. He said this estimate is based on sophisticated computer models -- and by simply watching the news. When you don't see footage of neighborhoods flattened or utterly submerged -- as in New Orleans earlier this month -- you can conclude the damage is less severe.

But the path of the storm also affected the possible costs in residential areas. Southwest Louisiana and the Texas border are not densely populated -- so there's less real estate to damage. He also says businesses affected by Rita should be up and running much more quickly than those pummeled by Katrina. By contrast, the latest estimates put the insurance costs of Hurricane Katrina at up to $60 billion.

--David Folkenflik

MORE: Insurance Companies Eye Disaster Impact

2:46 p.m. EDT | Sept. 24, 2005 | permalink

Rita's Rains Continue to Pour

The storm formerly known as Hurricane Rita has lost much of its bite. The National Hurricane Center has declared it a tropical storm with top winds of just 65 miles an hour. That's quite a bit more than a stiff breeze -- but definitely less dangerous than the 100-plus mile per hour winds that were expected. The storm -- now between Lufkin, Texas, and Shreveport, La. -- is expected to amble northward and pummel eastern Texas, western Louisiana and southern Arkansas with rainfall totals of up to 15 inches over the next few days.

MORE: Weaker Rita Slogs North Through Texas

2:39 p.m. EDT | Sept. 24, 2005 | permalink

Troops Poised to Enter Storm-Battered Lake Charles

Lake Charles, La., bore some of the brunt of Hurricane Rita (now a tropical storm) and it appears there was damage to metal buildings and equipment. But there were few casualties, mostly because residents responded to evacuation orders.

Lake Charles is part of Calcasieu Parish. Parish Administrator Mark McMurry told NPR's Emily Barocas that local emergency officials have met with Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore -- the person put in charge of the recovery effort after Hurricane Katrina. McMurry said thousands of troops are poised in Lafayette, La., to enter Lake Charles -- including an engineering brigade, a search and rescue team from the 82nd Airborne division and military police.

While there hasn't been New Orleans-style flooding, media reports and McMurry have relayed second-hand reports that some gambling venues have been damaged south of Interstate 10 (the major highway near town). Those reports have not yet been confirmed. McMurry told Barocas there's a silver lining to Katrina: It helped people -- and especially government agencies -- prepare for future catastrophe. "We haven't asked the feds and the state government for anything in the last 36 hours that has not been accommodated," McMurry said.

Power is down throughout the parish. Entergy, the local power provider, will restore power first to hospitals, then government buildings and finally residential and commercial customers.

A Web log posted by the Houston Chronicle offers a helpful tip to anyone who has evacuated but doesn't know if there's still power at home: "Call your answering machine. If you're lucky, your machine will pick up. If you're out of luck, no one will answer. If you're really out of luck, someone you don't know will answer."

--David Folkenflik

MORE: The Scene in Lake Charles

2:23 p.m. EDT | Sept. 24, 2005 | permalink

A Flood of News Coverage

A Fox News update on Hurricane Rita.
A Fox News update on Hurricane Rita. · Credit:

We'd like to welcome The Daily News of Galveston County back to publishing, at least in the online sense. It is Texas' oldest newspaper, according to its Web site, and has a daily circulation of 27,000. The wrath of Rita badly damaged the newspaper's main building and its Web hosting ability. So the staff evacuated to sister papers throughout Texas late Friday. A fresh report appeared a bit ago by Scott E. Williams. Its headline: "Island police patrol for looters."

Footage on the television cable channels doesn't necessarily provide context, but it does tell a story -- Fox News, CNN and MSNBC all carried the briefings by state and local officials in Texas and Louisiana. In this case, the footage told two stories.

The first was all too familiar -- floodwaters pouring through levees in New Orleans to submerge the Ninth Ward. Lafayette, Louisiana seemed to be getting terrible flooding in some areas. Beaumont, Texas, had some too. Buildings were shown badly damaged in Galveston. All the networks provided near-constant images of the angry-looking satellite globs of Rita moving across the Gulf region.

The second story offered a new narrative. Throughout the morning, authorities were projecting the sense they had a measure of control over the situation, if not necessarily mastery. They offered warnings -- but there was little of the desperation so evident in New Orleans a few weeks ago. And the news anchors took their cues, blending hints of relief that the storm's impact wasn't worse with reporting on some of the damage elsewhere.

Freshman U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal -- a Louisiana Republican -- held the microphone while he delivered updates to CNN's Wolf Blitzer from New Orleans a little while ago. Jindal's hair was whipping in the wind, his sentences were coherent and punchy and his hand gestures were dramatic enough to pull you in even with the sound muted. Are we sure this guy isn't angling for a brand new job as a cable news reporter?

--David Folkenflik

1:55 p.m. EDT | Sept. 24, 2005 | permalink

Rita Compounds Energy Worries

Motorists line up for gas in Houston before evacuating the city, Sept. 23, 2005.
Motorists line up for gas in Houston before evacuating the city, Sept. 23, 2005. · Credit: John McChesney, NPR

Houston Mayor Bill White is ticked off that in his home state of Texas -- one of the nation's largest producers of oil -- a gasoline shortage left thousands of motorists desperate for gas on the freeways. "It is just totally unacceptable that there was not adequate fuel supplies stashed around the state," he said, according to The Associated Press.

In the long run, however, David Pursell of the Houston investment analysis firm Pickering Energy Partners says people should stop worrying so much about $7-a-gallon gasoline -- and start worrying about heating fuel for the coming winter. At this time of year, Pursell told NPR's Emily Barocas, the industry should be storing up natural gas for colder days. Think of the energy firms as the ants in this particularly judgmental fable.

But the storms could disrupt plans to stockpile natural gas. Pursell said any significant damage to offshore production of natural gas, and the pipelines that distribute it, could seriously undermine the country's ability to stock up on it. If damage is severe, Pursell said, prices could soar and there could be shortages. Lake Charles, which is in the path of Rita, is home to one of the country's three major liquefied natural gas terminals.

And Pursell added this cheery thought: damage to those facilities could drive up the cost of the natural gas used for feed stock and chemicals used for household products such as carpets and plastics. That regular trip to Target and Wal-Mart could end up costing you markedly more, too, he said.

--David Folkenflik

MORE: Oil Patch in Direct Line of Storm

12:48 p.m. EDT | Sept. 24, 2005 | permalink

Texas Governor Urges Evacuees Not to Return Yet

Stay in your homes -- unless you're not home -- then stay away! That's the message from Texas Gov. Rick Perry this morning.

"It appears that the people of Houston and Galveston have been spared the worst," Perry announced. But he told people who remained in their homes during the storm to stay put and not to go outside. And he instructed evacuees to stay away, too: "They should not begin to return for the time being. We are not through assessing the damage. We cannot assure that your communities are safe to return to." Perry said the state needed time to replenish drained supplies of gasoline and food -- and to figure out how to stagger the traffic flow returning to Houston and other cities.

More traffic information for people in the Houston area can be found at this government-run site.

--David Folkenflik

11:33 a.m. EDT | Sept. 24, 2005 | permalink

Beaumont 'Dodged a Bullet'

Some people in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Beaumont, Texas, decided to ride out the storm instead of evacuating. That made people responsible for their safety apprehensive as Hurricane Rita approached.

"Officials here were terrified, absolutely terrified," NPR Correspondent Adam Davidson told me. "They expected severe devastation, flooding, loss of life. The phrase I keep hearing is that Beaumont dodged a bullet." But local officials have only just started to send out emergency crews for possible rescue and recovery efforts, and trees and power lines are down throughout the area.

Authorities at Beaumont seem more concerned about security issues -- looting and shooting, to be precise. A police spokeswoman told Davidson that the local Walgreens pharmacy has been looted, and a police officer told him that another store had also been looted. State police were essentially blocking anyone from entering Jefferson County. And local police had been sent to safeguard the gun stores. No incidents have been reported yet at those stores. "If they hadn't been expecting worse, this probably would have been one of the worst days in Jefferson County history -- but they had been expecting far, far worse," Davidson said.

That's not to say the storm didn't pack a real punch. In Jasper County, north of Beaumont, a house with seven people inside floated in floodwaters after it came off its foundation, according to the sheriff's department, the Associated Press reported. And in Beaumont's nine-story Elegante Hotel, gusts shattered massive windows in the lobby, bringing down a chandelier and ripping the roof off another section of lobby. The AP reported this response from Rainey Chretien, who works at the hotel's front desk: "We stayed in a stairwell most of the time. I didn't think it was going to be this bad."

--David Folkenflik

MORE: Beaumont Hit Hard By Rita, Looters

11:18 a.m. EDT | Sept. 24, 2005 | permalink

New Orleans Inundated Again

Homes in Orleans Parish are flooded after surging waters from Hurricane Rita overtopped a western section of the levee along the Industrial Canal, Sept. 23, 2005.
Homes in Orleans Parish are flooded after surging waters from Hurricane Rita overtopped a western section of the levee along the Industrial Canal, Sept. 23, 2005. · Credit: Reuters

Hurricane Rita overwhelmed some of the levees in New Orleans that had been patched up after Hurricane Katrina hammered the city nearly four weeks ago. "These are areas devastated already, largely deserted," says NPR's Jennifer Ludden, who drove through the hard-hit areas. "It's unclear how much more damage can be done, but it's demoralizing certainly for residents to see this again."

Recovery in New Orleans will now take longer than expected. "This came just as the city was nearly dried out, so all that effort and now they've got to start again in these neighborhoods," Ludden reports.

MORE: New Floods Leave New Orleans 'Dispirited', New Flooding Hits Ninth Ward

10:47 a.m. EDT | Sept. 24, 2005 | permalink

Bush Monitors Storm Response

President Bush receives a briefing on Hurricane Rita at Northern Command headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo., Sept. 24, 2005.
President Bush receives a briefing on Hurricane Rita at Northern Command headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo., Sept. 24, 2005. · Credit: Reuters

President Bush is warning people who evacuated the Gulf Coast not to rush back quite yet. "The situation is still dangerous because of flooding," Mr. Bush said. The president is tracking Hurricane Rita from Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. He is at the Northern Command to see firsthand how well the military is cooperating with state and local officials in responding to the hurricane.

He also plans to go to Austin, Texas, home of the state's emergency operations center, and then to San Antonio, where he was to spend the night. He may make more hurricane-related visits throughout the weekend.

10:44 a.m. EDT | Sept. 24, 2005 | permalink

Austin Makes Room for Evacuees

AUSTIN -- As buildings burned in Galveston and heavy rains battered Houston, the Texas capital prepared for Rita evacuees. Shelters for Gulf Coast evacuees opened in local schools and a shopping mall. Local animal shelters took in evacuated pets and called for donated crates to hold them. Hotels provided a few extras for weary travelers who had crawled along the highways from Houston -- including boxed lunches and peanut butter sandwiches. Austin officials estimate the city is hosting about 17,000 evacuees.

The Austin City Limits Music Festival decided to go ahead with three days of concerts, not concerned Rita might crash the party. Organizers gave the green light for the annual weekend of music when it became clear the storm would hit further east than originally predicted.

Austin was a safe place to fly into. But commercial flights also went to Corpus Christi on the Gulf Coast until late Friday, just before the storm hit. Maybe the airlines knew something the meteorologists didn't.

A businessman on my flight to Dallas noted that despite concern for Houston, it appeared that New Orleans would again take the worst. "It's just raining," he said, "and the levees are already leaking. What do those people have to go back to?"

--Paul Heltzel, NPR Online Producer

9:10 a.m. EDT | Sept. 24, 2005 | permalink

Scott Simon on Wind-Whipped Reporters (from Sept. 10)

They were out there again in the wee hours... the Dan Rather wannabes braving the advance of a potentially lethal hurricane to show TV viewers everywhere that 120-mph winds make things windy, and that torrential rains are potentially drenching -- even for someone wearing a fluorescent slicker with prominent network logo. Oh, the humanity. After Katrina, NPR's Scott Simon, a reformed storm chaser, had "A Word for Wind-Whipped TV Reporters."

9:02 a.m. EDT | Sept. 24, 2005 | permalink

Rita Sparks Fires in Galveston, Houston

A firefighter struggles to stay upright near burning buildings in Galveston, Texas, as Hurricane Rita approaches, Sept. 23 2005.
A firefighter struggles to stay upright near burning buildings in Galveston, Texas, as Hurricane Rita approaches, Sept. 23 2005. · Credit: Reuters

Fires related to Hurricane Rita were reported in Galveston and Houston. 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.

Fires were reported in and around Houston, including one in a two-story apartment building in southeast Houston that left at least eight units damaged, authorities said. Nobody was hurt, according to District Chief Jack Williams. Another blaze broke out before dawn at a shopping complex in Pasadena. There were no immediate reports of injuries, according to The Associated Press.

8:59 a.m. EDT | Sept. 24, 2005 | permalink

Rita Leaves 675,000 Customers Without Power

Hurricane Rita plowed into the Gulf Coast early Saturday, lashing Texas and Louisiana with driving rain, flooding low-lying regions, knocking power out to more than 675,000 customers and sparking fires across the region, The Associated Press reported.

Rita made landfall at 3:30 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. Within four hours it had weakened to a Category 2 storm, with top winds of 100 mph, as it moved further inland between Beaumont and Jasper, Texas.

MORE: Weakening Rita Hits Gulf Coast, Houston Escapes Direct Hit

8:51 a.m. EDT | Sept. 24, 2005 | permalink

Sources include NPR News staff, The Associated Press and other news sources.


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David Folkenflik

David Folkenflik

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