Rita spares Texas from predicted catastrophe. But Houston still has a big problem

A month after the devastation wreaked by Katrina, the Gulf coast has felt the fury of a second hurricane. But with the economic powerhouse of Texas deserted and local authorities on high alert, the damage done this time will be counted more in dollars than human life, writes Rupert Cornwell. Even so, the psychological impact is likely to be felt for a long time to come
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The Independent US

A massive relief and rescue operation began last night after Hurricane Rita smashed into the US Gulf Coast, blasting communities along the Texas-Louisiana border with raging winds, sheets of rain and storm surges, which left many inland areas under feet of water.

Rita, one of the most dreaded hurricanes of recent years, came ashore at 2.30am yesterday as a category 3 storm, with maximum sustained winds of 120mph and even stronger gusts. Though downgraded from the category 5, 175mph monster that crossed the Gulf of Mexico last week, it was still a huge and powerful storm, more than 400 miles across.

Hours after the storm hit, massive waves and wind were still lashing Lake Charles, a city in west Louisiana. Giant casino river boats were ripped from their moorings, tossing on the angry waters.

Multi-storey lake-front apartment buildings looked to be flooded, overwhelmed by the tidal surge.

As dawn broke, rescue teams headed for the worst-affected areas, Lake Charles, the oil industry centre of Port Arthur in Texas and other vulnerable coastal areas.

Many houses were badly damaged, and trees and power lines were blown down across the area. Flooding occurred as far inland as Lafayette, Louisiana, 30 miles from the Gulf.

The prospect of the widely feared disaster disappeared when Rita shifted north and east 24 hours before it struck, veering away from the Houston area and its four million inhabitants towards less populated parts - also ensuring there would be no repeat of the Galveston hurricane of 1900, in which at least 6,000 people died.

This time buildings were damaged in the fragile island city, but its 17ft seawall easily coped with the storm.

Moreover, mindful of Katrina, the local populace had departed beforehand. The biggest single loss of life caused by Rita may prove to have been the 24 elderly people from a Houston nursing home who died in a bus fire on Friday as they were being evacuated to Dallas.

At dawn, fierce winds still ripped across the region. A major concern was the fate of hundreds of people in Port Arthur who defied official warnings.

The town was struck by a storm surge of at least 15ft. At Lake Charles, substantial damage was reported at the airport. Initial estimates put the storm's damage at $8bn (about £4.5bn) - a considerable sum but far less than the $150bn clean-up and reconstruction bill for Katrina.

The main problem now may well be torrential rain in Rita's wake. Forecasters say the storm will grind to a standstill today over northern Texas, meaning that some areas could be swamped with up to two feet of rain.

This - and the yet unknown damage to vital Gulf oil installations - could be the main material legacy of Rita. Psychologically, however, this storm has had an impact that few others have done.

For the battered Gulf Coast, this has been the autumn of the hurricane. Not since 1915 has the US experienced two storms that reached category 5 level in the same year. In the space of one month in 2005 it has been hit by two, following near-identical courses.

The first was Katrina, for whose fury the federal government and local authorities were utterly unprepared. As a result, south-east Texas and west Louisiana have been living on their nerves since Rita, once a routine storm, turned into a monster.

By Friday morning Houston - normally a business powerhouse accounting for 2 per cent of the entire US economy - looked as though it had been struck by a neutron bomb, with every building intact but barely a person in sight.

But if Houston was spared, ravaged New Orleans - though 250 miles east of where Rita made land - was not. Once again areas in the city's low-lying ninth ward were six feet deep in water yesterday, as heavy rain and tidal surges caused levees hastily repaired after Katrina to break again.

"It's like looking at a murder," said Quentrell Jefferson, who used to live in the ninth ward but took refuge in Lafayette. "The first time is bad. After that, you numb up."

In practical terms, however, the new flooding may make little difference. The affected areas had been largely abandoned and would have had to be rebuilt in any case. With city pumps now working, engineers say the water should be removed relatively soon.

Less than a month separated Katrina and Rita. But the response to the two storms could not have been more different. The first slammed into a infamously inefficient and corrupt state, watched by a largely indifferent federal government. The second was perhaps the most anticipated and analysed hurricane ever. And its target was not fatalistic and indolent Louisiana but no-nonsense, "can-do" Texas - and the home state of the current President to boot.

Before Katrina, George Bush was nowhere to be seen and he has paid a huge political price for his neglect. This time he was (or more exactly, wanted to be) everywhere. Yesterday he was visiting Texas, having postponed an eve-of-storm visit only after officials convinced him that the trip would be a distraction from preparations for the hurricane's onslaught.

In the meantime, Fema, the federal disaster management agency, has been relieved of its hapless director Michael "you're-doing-a-heck-of-a-job" Brown.

Before, Fema was invisible. Now it is ubiquitous. In addition, some 50,000 troops and national guardsmen were pre-positioned for the relief and clean-up operation.

But the most vivid single memory of Rita may be the chaotic - yet ultimately successful - evacuation from the Houston region of 2.7 million people. In the event, the city found itself on the "gentler" left side of a north Atlantic cyclone, and avoided the worst.

But after the botched evacuation of New Orleans, no one was taking chances. The result was the largest peacetime exodus in recent US history. Last Thursday evening, northbound freeways seen from the air were glittering ribbons of red lights, as a million vehicles left the area in a bumper-to-bumper crawl.

Some 60,000 UK citizens were among the six million people living in the threatened region. While many heeded warnings from the Foreign Office to leave, others chose to stay - among them Barbara Batten, a 75-year-old originally from Dover who emigrated to the US in 1951 and lives in Sugar Land, a few miles south-west of Houston.

She was planning on leaving but changed her mind after news that interstate highways out of town were jammed.

She said: "My bags were packed but the authorities changed their mind and told us to stay at home and tough it out.

"The highways were all gridlocked and the petrol stations had all run out. I haven't seen a soul. The whole place is a ghost town."

Among those who did depart were the city's most famous residents, the former president George Bush Snr and his wife Barbara.

"They've boarded up their home in Houston and gone to Washington," said their son, Jeb, the Governor of Florida.

In all, Rita did not come up to the grimmest predictions. But even if human loss is small, the economic bill could still be considerable. The oil installations around Houston survived intact, as did the city's vital shipping canal.

Even so, the cost of this hurricane could soar if facilities around Port Arthur and Lake Charles are badly damaged. The rigs, platforms and refineries along and offshore from the east Texas and west Louisiana regions account for a quarter of US oil output, and over a third of national refining capacity.

Most capacity has been shut down ahead of Rita. Even if refineries reopen quickly, petrol shortages are certain. It is feared pump prices could jump from around $3 to $4 or more per gallon, at least in the short term.

RITA'S PROGRESS

Wednesday

4.45pm EDT - Rita becomes category 5 hurricane as it enters the Gulf of Mexico with wind speed of 165mph.

Thursday

9.15am EDT - Rita moving at just 10mph across the Gulf and towards Texas coast

Friday

10.15am EDT - Centre to hit Texas-Louisiana border. Downgraded to category 4

Saturday

7.35am EDT - Moment of landfall impact. Rita loses power and is downgraded to a category 2 with winds close to 100mph

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