Rita Eyes Texas Coast, May Dampen N. Orleans

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Hurricane Rita appears to be headed for a stretch of coast near the border of Texas and Louisiana, according to the National Hurricane Center. That could bring more rain to New Orleans than previously anticipated.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're going to go next to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, where they are closely tracking this storm. NPR's Jon Hamilton is there.

Jon, good morning.

JON HAMILTON reporting:

Good morning.

INSKEEP: I understand there's been another briefing there, the latest update on the path of Hurricane Rita. What are they telling you?

HAMILTON: Well, there's a little bit of, I guess, what you'd call good news. The wind speed is down slightly. It's now 135 miles an hour instead of 140 miles an hour, and that makes Rita now a weak Category 4 storm. It also means that it is--the storm appears to be losing a little steam as it gets very close to the coastline, and so there's hope that, when it actually hits, it will be a Category 3 storm.

INSKEEP: Well, there's one question, exactly how strong it will be. The other question, of course, is where it's going.

HAMILTON: Right now it still looks like it's going to pass east of Galveston and Houston. There'd been a lot of uncertainty about this because the storm has wobbled a little bit and it's, you know, hard to estimate within even 50 miles or so. But it looks like that area right around the border between Texas and Louisiana is where the storm is going to strike.

INSKEEP: I'm just now looking at the NOAA Web site, where they have their latest idea of the tracking. And yeah, it doesn't seem to have changed much since yesterday, still heading for just a little bit west of that Texas-Louisiana border. Now, Jon, as we were just hearing from New Orleans, from the Army Corps of Engineers, about water overtopping levees there, about the very narrow margin for error that they feel that they have. Are forecasters giving any odds on the chance that this storm could slip even further east and cause more trouble for New Orleans?

HAMILTON: Yeah. Well, that is the question. And there are sort of two phases of this. The first one is what they're experiencing now, which is a lot of rain, and I don't know if they have an exact figure yet, but they're expecting 5 inches and they thought they could handle maybe 6 to 8 inches, so we're coming very close to the margin. But, of course, the next question is what happens to the storm once it moves inland? And if it went and hovered sort of over eastern Texas and western Louisiana, it could drop a huge amount of rain into watersheds that feed the New Orleans area, and so you could put even more strain on already badly damaged levees and flood walls.

INSKEEP: And let me move over to the other side of this storm, Jon Hamilton. Houston is now on the west or left side of this storm, if you will, if you see it from the storm's perspective. And, of course, there have been desperate problems with the attempted evacuation of Houston. What kind of weather can they expect now?

HAMILTON: Well, they're very lucky that they are on that side of it. They are on what you'd call the trailing edge of this counterclockwise-rotating storm. And that means that the severity of the weather over there will be a lot less. The wind speeds will be less, the rain will be less. The places that get the most rain are always to the right of storms that occur above the equator.

INSKEEP: And just one final thing. You mentioned that the wind speed is dropping. Do they expect it to drop even more before the eye of the storm hits land?

HAMILTON: Quite possibly a little bit. It's right now at 135 miles an hour; if it dropped to 130, it would then be a Category 3 storm, and the forecasters here are saying that's quite possible.

INSKEEP: Jon, thanks very much.

HAMILTON: You're welcome.

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

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