Tracking Hurricane Rita's Trajectory, Strength

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Hurricane Rita, a Category 4 storm, is bearing down on the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana. But forecasters still aren't sure exactly where the powerful storm will make landfall. NPR's Jon Hamilton talks with host Melissa Block about the latest predictions from the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Millions of people living along the Gulf of Mexico are preparing for the arrival of Hurricane Rita. In Texas and Louisiana, state officials have ordered people to evacuate. Roadways leading out of Houston and other communities are packed with cars making their way inland, away from low-lying areas that may flood. Ross Polk is one of those evacuees. He's a former assistant city manager from Galveston, Texas.

Mr. ROSS POLK (Former Assistant City Manager, Galveston, Texas): I left Galveston at 3:00 yesterday afternoon, and I got as far as Tomball by 3:00 this afternoon. So it was 24 hours on the road; we'll say 75 miles.

NORRIS: In New Orleans, engineers are scrambling to shore up levees and flood walls damaged just weeks ago by Hurricane Katrina. We'll have more on the preparations in a few minutes.

BLOCK: First, the latest on the storm. Rita is now about 400 miles off the coast and it has dropped in strength from a Category 5 to a Category 4 storm. It's expected to make landfall early Saturday morning. Forecasters say it's now on a course that will take it closer to New Orleans than previously estimated. That prediction is made by experts at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. NPR's Jon Hamilton is there, and he has the latest on what forecasters are saying about Rita's path.

And, Jon, what's the word? How close to New Orleans might this storm come?

JON HAMILTON reporting:

Well, by normal standards, not very close. The eye of the storm is probably not even going to get within 200 miles of New Orleans. But it's a really big storm and a really powerful storm, so it could still cause problems. And it's so big that the tropical storm-force winds could occur up to 205 miles from the center. So if you do a little math, you can see that the New Orleans areas could get tropical storm-force winds. They also could get three to five inches of rain, and the entire coastline, of course, around there could get a big storm surge.

The big worry, the thing they're talking about here in the last hours--or the forecasters have been--is that the storm looks like it's going to move inland and then it could just stop. And when an enormous storm like this stops, it just keeps raining and raining and raining, and they're talking about--there could be a total of 25 inches in some areas. So obviously, that's a big problem if very much of that water goes anywhere near New Orleans.

BLOCK: Jon, you had talked about three to five inches of rain possibly in New Orleans. Is the city prepared to handle that? Could the levees sustain that much water?

HAMILTON: They could handle that much, or at least the Army Corps of Engineers thinks that they can. They've talked about being able to handle six inches of rain and a certain amount of storm surge. The question is going to be a little like the time that Katrina came through in that it may not be the immediate effect, but the prolonged effect over the next few days. After the storm is already on land, we'll see how much rain trickles down that way.

BLOCK: We're talking about New Orleans, but what about the Texas coast? What about Houston and Galveston, the places where the storm was expected to make a direct hit?

HAMILTON: Yeah. The storm seems to be headed for somewhere very near Galveston Bay. And, you know, with this being a Category 4 storm, that's better than a Category 5, but it's still is what they would consider an extremely dangerous storm. And in that area around Galveston Bay, depending on precisely which side of the eye wall you're on, you could get a storm surge of 15 to 20 feet. And there's a lot of that part of the coastline that isn't 15 to 20 feet above normal sea level.

BLOCK: Jon, as this storm moves across the Gulf, it still could, I suppose, change direction one more time. It could take a different tack.

HAMILTON: Yeah. Hurricanes, as they go along, if you imagine sort of a cork floating in a stream. They are eddies that take it to the right and to left. They know more or less where it's going, but you're going to see these little bobbles, they call them, and so it's not--it will be a lot clearer tomorrow than it is now where precisely the storm is going to hit.

BLOCK: And is there any sense that it could weaken as it continues across the Gulf?

HAMILTON: Well, the good news is that it's crossing colder water than it had been, and colder water tends to take away the power of a hurricane; warmer water tends to fuel it. The bad news is--and Max Mayfield, the head of the Hurricane Center here, was just talking about this with some of the people--some of the reports from airplanes. He said the newest reports are that the pressure is actually decreasing inside the hurricane, and that suggests it's actually strengthening, so it could strengthen overnight.

BLOCK: NPR's Jon Hamilton at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Jon, thanks a lot.

HAMILTON: You're welcome.

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