September 24, 2005

Hurricane Rita roars into US refinery row

By Erwin Seba

GALVESTON, Texas (Reuters) - 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 Center 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-meter)
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

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 center of the U.S. oil industry, got gusty
winds and intermittent rains but did not take a direct hit from

In Port Arthur and Beaumont in southeastern Texas and Lake
Charles, 60 miles to the east, trees toppled in the rising
winds and streets were littered with blowing debris.

News reports said a 200-foot (61 meter) container ship was
adrift in Lake Charles, 35 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico,
and threatened to strike an Interstate 10 bridge over the lake.

CNN said the city's civic center 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

"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

"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 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

Even though Rita hit 200 miles to the west of New Orleans,
the scarred city felt the effects when high tides from the
storm spilled 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)