Hurricane Rita Approaches Gulf Coast

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John Hamilton reports from the National Hurricane Center in Miami on the latest forecast for Hurricane Rita. The storm is expected to make landfall on the Texas-Louisiana border as early as Friday night.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Noah Adams.

Evacuees from Houston on the road as they flee Hurricane Rita get their last chance for gasoline. That story is coming up.

The hurricane is our lead. More than two and a half million people along the Texas and Louisiana coasts have been urged to get out of its way. For the latest on the hurricane's status and progress, we go to NPR's Jon Hamilton at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida.

Jon, what's the latest--what do they say about the storm category and about the wind speeds?

JON HAMILTON reporting:

Well, the latest here is that it's been downgraded to a Category 3 storm, and that means the winds are now about 125 miles an hour. They had been earlier in the day 135; earlier than that, 140. And of course, at the peak, they had been 175 miles an hour where this storm started, of course; it was a Category 5 storm. So things are looking a little better.

ADAMS: That downturn was expected, right?

HAMILTON: That is correct. As the storm passes over the cooler waters nearer the coast and especially as it begins to encounter the coast, you almost always see hurricanes decrease a little bit.

ADAMS: Now what can they say about the direction, the path, the line it will take as it gets to the coast?

HAMILTON: Well, right now it looks like it is still headed for that region of coast between the Texas and Louisiana border. And it really hasn't deviated too much from that course. I think they're saying Port Arthur, Texas, is going to be very close to where it actually--where the eye wall begins to pass over land.

ADAMS: Port Arthur. And how difficult is it--and I know it's an exact science in the hurricanes; you can see them wobbling up there. But how difficult is it to make that prediction?

HAMILTON: It's difficult because, as you say, they do wobble, and especially once they begin to encounter the land, they begin to get less organized, and sometimes it's even hard to say exactly where the eye wall is anymore. It gets very confusing, but in a way it's not that important. This is a big storm. There are powerful winds hundreds of miles across. And so whether you're, you know, 10 miles from the center or 20 may not make that much difference.

ADAMS: Do you get a feeling of absolute respect for the power of this storm among the people who are professionals watching the track of it there?

HAMILTON: That is absolutely true. This building is covered--the walls around here are covered with headlines and pictures from storms past. And the one that always sticks in my mind is the picture from Florida of a piece of plywood that has penetrated exactly halfway through a palm tree. And if you get some idea of how much wind it would take to do that to a tree, you get an idea of why these people respect hurricanes the way they do.

ADAMS: Let's turn to New Orleans here to close. New Orleans, we're seeing some water going over levees that have been previously damaged. Could the city of New Orleans be hit again by a hurricane here?

HAMILTON: Well, it won't get hit by a hurricane. Before, they were predicting it would have tropical storm level winds, and I don't know if that's been changed yet. They certainly are getting a lot of rain. In fact, a lot of the storm has already hit New Orleans because New Orleans is further east than the coastline of Texas there. They were talking about getting maybe 5 inches of rain and maybe three, four, five foot of storm surge. There's already been one report of not a breach, but of an overtopping, they call it, of one of the levees. And that makes you think that things are being stretched pretty much to the limit there.

ADAMS: Thank you, NPR's Jon Hamilton, at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida.

HAMILTON: You're welcome.

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