Traffic continued to be a major concern for evacuees in Texas Friday afternoon, Sept. 23, as Hurricane Rita edged within hours of making landfall in the state.
As many as 2 million residents of Houston and Galveston fled their homes during the past few days, causing traffic jams that created standstills across the state. According to The Associated Press, some drivers sat in traffic for hours, while others turned back to face the storm, fearing they would not be able to escape in time.
Two dozen people lost their lives as an indirect result of the evacuation. An evacuation bus on Interstate 45 carrying senior citizens from a retirement home in Bellaire, TX, caught fire and exploded, killing 24 people inside. Authorities believe a mechanical failure in the brakes caused the fire, which spread into the passenger area and may have exploded when it reached some of the passengers' oxygen tanks.
The explosion also caused a 17-mile backup on the interstate on Thursday, worsening already treacherous traffic conditions. However, Judy Curtis, spokesperson for the Texas Department of Transportation, said many roads were back to near-normal levels late Friday afternoon.
"Traffic is flowing very well now, at speed limits, out of Houston on I-45 and I-10, Curtis said. "We can get through much better today than we could yesterday."
Curtis said TXDOT is also trying to help motorists who ran out of gas, due to shortages and rationing at fueling stations in the area.
"We have mobilized many of our Texas Transportation Department trucks with fuel tankers to the site where people seem to be stranded on the outgoing Houston area," Curtis said. "We also have opened up 11 of our maintenance yards in areas north and west of Houston, allowing people to come and get gasoline, enough fuel at least to get them out of harm's way."
Hurricane Rita was downgraded to a Category 3 storm Friday, but its heavy rains and 125 mph winds will still make this a very powerful and dangerous storm when it hits land, according to the National Weather Service's Hurricane Center.
At 4 p.m. CDT, a hurricane warning - meaning hurricane conditions are expected within the next 24 hours - was in effect from Sargent, TX, to Morgan City, LA.
A tropical storm warning - meaning tropical storm conditions are expected within the next 24 hours - remains in effect for the southeastern coast of Louisiana east of Morgan City to the mouth of the Pearl River, including metropolitan New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain, and from south of Sargent to Port Arkansas.
At 4 p.m. CDT, the center of Rita was located about 155 miles east-southeast of Galveston, TX, and about 140 miles southeast of Port Arthur.
Rita is moving toward the northwest at approximately 12 mph. On this track, the core of the hurricane will make landfall along the southwest Louisiana and upper Texas coasts near daybreak Saturday.
Maximum sustained winds are near 125 mph, with higher gusts. Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 85 miles from the center of the storm, and tropical storm-force winds extend outward up to 205 miles. Hurricane force winds are expected to spread inland as far as 100 miles.
Coastal storm surge flooding of 15 feet above normal tide levels with large and dangerous waves can be expected near and to the east of where the center makes landfall. Tides are currently running about two feet above normal along the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coasts in the areas affected by Katrina. Tides in those areas will increase to 4 to 6 feet and be accompanied by large waves, and residents there could experience coastal flooding.
Rita is expected to produce rainfall accumulations of 8 to 12 inches, with isolated maximum amounts of 20 inches over southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana as it moves inland. Rainfall amounts of 3 to 5 inches are possible over southeastern Louisiana, including metropolitan New Orleans.