Hurricane Rita roared in from the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday, striking refinery row in Texas and Louisiana with 120 mph (193 kmh) winds and torrential rains. its moorings in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and caused power outages across the region as it came ashore near the Texas-Louisiana border.
A spectacular fire engulfed three buildings in Galveston’s historic downtown and another building collapsed in the same area as Rita raked the island city.
The U.S. National Hurricane Centre in Miami said the eye of the storm hit land in extreme southwestern Louisiana just east of Sabine Pass, Texas.
Forecasters predicted a 15- to 20-foot (4.5- to 6-metre) storm surge would spill over local levees in the low-lying region and that rains up to 25 inches were possible.
“This will bring Gulf waters as far north as the Interstate 10 (highway) corridor from Beaumont to Lake Charles,” the weather service said.
The refinery town of Port Arthur, Texas, was expected to get severe flooding, officials said.
Rita was the second powerful hurricane to strike the Gulf Coast in less than a month, following Katrina, which devastated southeastern Louisiana and Mississippi, killing at least 1,069 people.
Together, the two storms knocked out nearly all energy production in the Gulf of Mexico and 30 percent of the nation’s refining capacity onshore.
The oil industry was anxiously waiting to see whether major refineries in Lake Charles, Beaumont, Port Arthur and Houston would be damaged by Rita.
Houston, the centre of the U.S. oil industry, got gusty winds and intermittent rains but did not take a direct hit from Rita.
In Port Arthur and Beaumont in southeastern Texas and Lake Charles, 60 miles (96 km) to the east, trees toppled in the rising winds and streets were littered with blowing debris.
News reports said a 200-foot (61 metre) container ship was adrift in Lake Charles, 35 miles (56 km) north of the Gulf of Mexico, and threatened to strike an Interstate 10 bridge over the lake.
CNN said the city’s civic centre was coming apart in the strong winds and police reported their building was damaged.
“It’s unbelievable,” Lake Charles Police Chief Tommy Davis told Lafayette television station KLFY. “There’s going to be a lot of destruction out there.”
Although most people had evacuated, “We had a few die-hards who stayed,” Davis said. “I hope they survived.”
Conditions were the same in Anahuac, Texas, west of Port Arthur, said Chambers County emergency management director Ryan Holzapfel.
“Right now, winds are 100 (mph) plus and there are gusts much higher,” he said. “I’ve heard tree limbs crack. There is no power here, no power.”
The storm’s path reminded many of Hurricane Audrey, which inundated southwestern Louisiana in 1957, killing at least 390 people.
“It’s just like Audrey. I was 9 years old and it was terrible,” said Phillis Carbalan of Lake Charles.
While grim-face officials warned that Rita would strike a catastrophic blow, in Galveston’s Poop Deck bar overlooking the Gulf the mood was light as bar-goers drank and watched the roiling surf.
“Mother Nature must be a Yankee lady,” said personal chef Samantha Gallion. “It’s like she’s angry at the southern coast. She’s hit us all now.”
“I’m joking in the face of disaster, she said.
Most of the storm area was devoid of people after more than 2 million fled the area in a mass evacuation that turned chaotic in Texas.
Traffic jams 100 miles (160 km) long clogged highways leading out of Houston, stranding thousands of motorists who ran out of gas as they inched along for hours on roads headed inland.
The chaos turned into disaster on Friday when a bus carrying residents of a Houston nursing home exploded near Dallas, killing 24 people. Oxygen tanks used by many of the victims exploded in the fire and turned the bus into a charred hulk.
Even though Rita hit 200 miles (320 km) to the west of New Orleans, the scarred city felt the effects when high tides from the storm spilt over the city’s fractured levee system.
In scenes eerily reminiscent of the days after Katrina struck on August 29, water from the city’s industrial canal filled up streets in the Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish where nearly all the homes are already ruined.
(Additional reporting by Allan Dowd in Louisiana and Matt Daily in Houston)