Hurricane Rita claimed its first victims yesterday before the storm's full fury reached the Gulf Coast
Hurricane Rita's winds eased a little on Friday night, but it remained a Category 3 storm with maximum sustained winds of 120 mph, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said in its latest advisory.
As many as 2.8 million people along the Texas-Louisiana coast have fled. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco said over 90 percent of residents in the state's southwestern parishes had evacuated.
In New Orleans, which had drained nearly all the floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina, water poured through gaps in the Industrial Canal into the already-devastated Lower Ninth Ward. Additional flooding brought by Rita might delay the search-and-recovery efforts in the city to a halt, where hundreds of bodies had been uncovered.
Hurricane Rita claimed its first victims yesterday before the storm's full fury reached the Gulf Coast, when a bus carrying elderly evacuees caught fire, igniting their oxygen tanks and killing as many as 24 people. "It's obviously a horrific event," Dallas Mayor Laura Miller said. "We've handled two waves of evacuees now. We've never had anything this horrible happen. So, it's really a tragedy." The bus was believed to have been carrying elderly and infirm evacuees from south Texas, Dallas police Sergeant Don Peritz said. About 15 people were removed from the vehicle before it became engulfed in flames and an estimated 24 people did not make it off the bus.
Rita hurled its full fury at Texas and Louisiana on Saturday, as the storm's potent eyewall ripped ashore, lashing coastlines with a terrifying barrage of near 200kph winds and walls of driving rain. The category three storm's eyewall hit at Sabine Pass, on the Louisiana-Texas border, after brewing for days in the Gulf of Mexico. Forecasters warned fearsome flood tides of up to 4,5m could swallow up parts of the Gulf coast as rain sheeted down on deserted streets, debris flew through the air on racing gusts and flashes of green light tore the night sky as electricity substations exploded.
Further west, in Galveston, Texas, where a 1900 hurricane killed up to 12 000 people, a fierce fire raged in a historic district, television pictures showed. Walls of flame and sparks fanned by winds of up to 112kph surged towards firefighters.
In Houston, where more than 2 million people evacuated, creating a traffic nightmare, the streets and highways were largely empty. About the only vehicles on Interstate 10 were a convoy of 18-wheelers carrying aid and other items into the city.