By ALICIA A. CALDWELL
Associated Press Writer
GALVESTON, Texas – Hundreds of thousands of people across the Houston metropolitan area struggled to make their way inland in a bumper-to-bumper exodus Thursday as Hurricane Rita closed in on the nation's fourth-largest city with winds howling at 150 mph.
Drivers ran out of gas in 14-hour traffic jams or looked in vain for a place to stay as hotels hundreds of miles away filled up.
An estimated 1.8 million residents or more in Texas and Louisiana were under orders to evacuate to avoid a deadly repeat of Katrina.
The storm weakened Thursday morning from a top-of-the-scale Category 5 hurricane to a Category 4 as it swirled across the Gulf of Mexico, and forecasters said it could lose more steam by the time it comes ashore late Friday or early Saturday. But it could still be a dangerous storm _ one aimed straight at a section of coastline with the nation's biggest concentration of oil refineries.
“Don't follow the example of Katrina and wait. No one will come and get you during the storm,” Harris County Judge Robert Eckels said in Houston.
In New Orleans, meanwhile, Rita's outer bands brought the first measurable rain to the city since Katrina, raising fears that the patched-up levees could give way and cause a new round of flooding.
Highways leading inland out of Houston, a metropolitan area of 4 million people, were clogged up to 100 miles north of the city. Service stations reported running out of gasoline, and police officers carried gas to motorists who ran out. Texas authorities also asked the Pentagon for help in getting gasoline to drivers stuck in traffic. Shoppers emptied grocery store shelves of spaghetti, tuna and other nonperishable items.
To speed the evacuation, Gov. Rick Perry ordered a halt to all southbound traffic into Houston along Interstate 45 and took the unprecedented step of directing the opening all eight lanes to northbound traffic out of the city for 125 miles. I-45 is the primary evacuation route north from Houston and nearby Galveston.
Trazanna Moreno tried to leave Houston for the 225-mile trip to Dallas on U.S. 90 but turned back after getting stuck in traffic.
“We ended up going six miles in two hours and 45 minutes,” said Moreno, whose neighborhood is not expected to flood. “It could be that if we ended up stranded in the middle of nowhere that we'd be in a worse position in a car dealing with hurricane-force winds than we would in our house.
With traffic at a dead halt, fathers and sons got out of their cars and played catch on freeway medians. Others stood next to their cars, videotaping the scene, or walked between vehicles, chatting with people along the way. Tow trucks tried to wend their way along the shoulders, pulling stalled cars out of the way.
Hotels filled up all the way to the Oklahoma and Arkansas line.
John Decker, 47, decided to board up his home and hunker down because he could not find a hotel room.
“I've been calling since yesterday morning all the way up to about 1 this morning. No vacancies anywhere,” he said. “I checked all the way from here to Del Rio to Eagle Pass. I called as far as Lufkin, San Marcos, San Angelo. The only place I didn't call was El Paso. By the time you reach El Paso, it's almost time to turn back.”
At 2 p.m. EDT, Rita was centered about 435 miles southeast of Galveston and was moving at near 9 mph. It winds were near 150 mph, down from 175 mph earlier in the day. Forecasters predicted it would come ashore somewhere along a 400-mile stretch of the Texas and Louisiana coast that includes the Houston-Galveston area near the midpoint.
Forecasters warned of the possibility of a storm surge of 15 to 20 feet, battering waves and rain of up to 15 inches along the Texas and western Louisiana coast. Three to five inches of rain were possible over New Orleans, where engineers raced to fortify the city's Katrina-damaged levees and pumps.
The U.S. mainland has not been hit by two Category 4 storms in the same year since 1915. Katrina came ashore Aug. 29 as a Category 4 hurricane.
Galveston, Corpus Christi and surrounding Nueces County, low-lying parts of Houston, and mostly emptied-out New Orleans were under mandatory evacuation orders as Rita swirled across the Gulf of Mexico. Oil refineries and chemical plants in and around Houston began shutting down, and hundreds of workers were evacuated from offshore oil rigs.
Brian Williamson set out from his home in Angleton, along the Texas coast, with his wife, two children and other relatives. “If I didn't have my little kids, I would go home and ride the storm out,” he said after pulling into a McDonald's. “But I have to protect my family.”
Environmentalists warned that the stretch of coast threatened by Rita is home to 87 chemical plants, refineries and petroleum storage installations, raising the possibility that the storm could cause a major oil spill or toxic release. Southeastern Texas is also home to more than a dozen active Superfund sites.
NASA evacuated Johnson Space Center and transferred control of the international space station to the Russians. Storm surge projections put most of the NASA space center, situated about 20 miles southeast of downtown Houston, underwater in the event of a hurricane above Category 2.
Although Houston is 60 miles inland, it is a low-lying, flat, sprawling city whose vast stretches of concrete cover clay soil that does not easily soak up water. The city is beribboned with seven bayous that overflow their banks even in a strong thunderstorm. Those bayous feed into the Ship Channel, Clear Lake and Galveston Bay.
Scientists have warned that the storm surge from a hurricane could cause the bayous' currents to reverse, pushing water back into the city and swamping mostly poor, Hispanic neighborhoods on the southeast side of Houston.
Along the Gulf Coast, federal, state and local officials heeded the bitter lessons of Katrina: Hundreds of buses were dispatched to evacuate the poor. Hospital and nursing home patients were cleared out. And truckloads of water, ice and ready-made meals, and rescue and medical teams were put on standby.
Texas authorities also planned to airlift at least 9,000 people from Beaumont and Houston, including nursing home residents and the homeless.
“Now is not a time for warnings. Now is a time for action,” Houston Mayor Bill White said.
Galveston was a virtual ghost town by late Wednesday. The coastal city of 58,000 _ situated on an island 8 feet above sea level _ was nearly wiped off the map in 1900 when an unnamed hurricane killed between 6,000 and 12,000 in what is still the nation's deadliest natural disaster.
City Manager Steve LeBlanc said the storm surge from Rita could reach 50 feet. Galveston is protected by a nearly 11-mile-long granite seawall 17 feet tall.
“Not a good picture for us,” LeBlanc said.
In Corpus Christi, about 180 miles down the coast from Galveston, buses were sent to evacuate hundreds of people with no other transportation. But the mandatory evacuation order was later dropped in favor of a voluntary one after it appeared that the city would escape a direct hit from Rita.
Houston is home to the biggest concentration of Katrina refugees from Louisiana. Rita forced many of them to pick up and leave again.
Among them was Tommy Green, 38. He was evacuated from his New Orleans-area home during Katrina, found temporary housing in Galveston and recently even received a job offer. On Thursday, he boarded a yellow school bus to safety.
“I'm trying to hold up,” he said. “I'm tired of all this. It's tough.”
Meanwhile, the death toll from Katrina passed the 1,000 mark in five Gulf Coast states, reaching 1,069 as of Thursday. The body count in Louisiana alone was put at 832, with most of the corpses found in the receding floodwaters of New Orleans.
Crude oil prices rose again on fears that Rita would destroy key oil installations in Texas and the gulf or otherwise disrupt production. Texas, the heart of U.S. crude production, accounts for 25 percent of the nation's total oil output.
Rita is the 17th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, making this the fourth-busiest season since record-keeping started in 1851. The record is 21 tropical storms in 1933. The hurricane season is not over until Nov. 30.
Associated Press writers Deborah Hastings and Juan A. Lozano in Houston, Lynn Brezosky in Corpus Christi and Pam Easton in Galveston contributed to this report.
On the Net:
National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov