Just weeks after leaving their leveled city because of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of New Orleans evacuees living in Houston shelters were forced on Tuesday to pack up their belongings and move again, this time to avoid the wrath of Hurricane Rita.
Some experts are predicting that the storm — which is expected to kick up to a Category 4 hurricane as it steams towards the Texas coast later this week — could pack as big or a bigger punch than Katrina, which left over 900 dead and is expected to cost $200 billion (see "Bush Unveils Ambitious Plan To Help New Orleans 'Rise Again' "). With officials taking no chances this time, some still-weary Katrina survivors in Houston's public shelters were given one-way tickets on buses and planes bound for Arkansas, or, for those that could afford it, furnished apartments in the Houston area, according to a report by The New York Times.
Gathered in the hot sun with all they own packed into garbage bags and suitcases tied with electrical cords, the last few hundred evacuees — some of them visibly angry — left the shelters at Reliant Arena unsure of where they would land next (see "Life In The Astrodome: One Family's Story"). Evacuees who've been housed in hotels in low-lying areas were also moved, as officials tried to make sure none of the 27,000 Katrina survivors in the area were in Rita's path. Of the more than 7,000 Katrina evacuees housed in coastal Texas towns, 4,000 were being sent to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, 3,000 to Tennessee and 250 to Nebraska.
With Rita's path still unclear, leaders in Galveston, Texas — the scene of the nation's deadliest natural disaster, a hurricane in 1900 that killed an estimated 8,000 — ordered a mandatory evacuation beginning at 6 p.m. Wednesday (September 19). The low-lying city, which is about 60 miles south of Houston, is expected to begin feeling the effects of Rita by Saturday. Meanwhile, Houston Mayor Bill White said he would decide Wednesday whether to call for an evacuation of as much as half of the city of two million.
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Not wanting to be caught off guard as it was during Katrina (see "Bush Takes Blame For Slow Katrina Response; Nursing-Home Owners Charged"), the White House put homeland security advisor Fran Townsend in charge of coordinating the federal response to Rita on Tuesday. Townsend is also in charge of the investigation into the slow federal response to Katrina.
In preparing for Rita, the Texas National Guard has called up 5,000 troops and mobilized 11 helicopters, and plans are under way to open shelters in San Antonio, Austin, Nacogdoches, Waco, Temple and Tyler, Texas, for evacuees from the storm.
Learning the lessons of Katrina, the new acting head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, R. David Paulison, said Tuesday that his agency is relying "much more heavily" on the Department of Defense and the National Guard to help coordinate response to the ninth hurricane of the season. He said that the Department of Homeland Security is already getting people, food and water in place to deal with the aftermath of Rita.
And, in light of the heavy toll Katrina took on the sick and elderly, the areas that are expected to bear the brunt of the storm in Louisiana and Galveston are already moving quickly to evacuate their more vulnerable citizens.
Just days after asking citizens to start coming back to the city, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has again called for an evacuation, fearing that the Katrina-damaged levees surrounding the city are vulnerable to the heavy rains Rita is packing (see "New Orleans Homecoming Stalls As Tropical Storm Approaches").
Even though three quarters of a trillion gallons of water have been pumped out of New Orleans into Lake Pontchartrain since Katrina hit on August 29, if Rita hits on the East side of New Orleans, even a five-foot surge could send several feet of water rushing back into the city, according to CNN.
As of early Wednesday, Rita's maximum sustained winds kicked up to 120 miles an hour, and storm trackers expect it to swell to a Category 4 storm — the same size as Katrina — with winds of at least 131 mph, later in the day.
"If this becomes a Category 4 or 5 storm, we can expect the same type of damage in this area" as with Hurricane Katrina, Harris County, Texas, homeland security coordinator Frank Gutierrez told Bloomberg News. Even with less flooding, "we could have just as much damage here," he said.
To find out what you can do to help provide relief to victims of Katrina, head to think MTV's hurricane relief page.