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Rita causes flooding, fires on Gulf Coast
Updated: 2005-09-24 21:40

Hurricane Rita plowed into the Gulf Coast early Saturday, lashing Texas and Louisiana with driving rain, flooding low-lying regions, knocking power out to nearly a million customers and sparking fires across the region.

Rita made landfall at 3:30 a.m. EDT as a Category 3 storm just east of Sabine Pass, on the Texas-Louisiana line, bringing a 20-foot storm surge and warnings of up to 25 inches of rain, the National Hurricane Center said. Within four hours it had weakened to a Category 2 storm, with top winds of 100 mph, as it moved further inland between Beaumont and Jasper.

Rita causes flooding, fires on Gulf Coast
An unidentified camera crew makes its way by boat through the newly flooded Ninth Ward in New Orleans, September 23, 2005. Texas officials warned of catastrophe and an already devastated New Orleans suffered renewed flooding as weakened levees gave way in the hours before Hurricane Rita's expected strike at the U.S. Gulf Coast. [Reuters]

There were no immediate reports of fatalities, though rescuers in many areas had to wait for winds to subside before launching searches. About 3 million people had fled a 500-mile stretch of the Texas-Louisiana coast ahead of the storm, motivated in part by the devastating toll that Hurricane Katrina inflicted on the Gulf Coast barely three weeks ago.

The storm spun off tornadoes as it churned northwest at 12 mph, causing transformers to explode in the pre-dawn darkness.

In Jasper County, north of Beaumont, a house with seven people inside floated in floodwaters after it came off its foundation, said sheriff's communications supervisor Alice Duckworth.

Duckworth said the 30 emergency workers were stuck in the emergency operations center because of flooding. "We can't get any fire trucks out," she said.

Rita spared the flood-prone cities of Houston and Galveston a direct hit.

"So far, Houston is weathering the storm," Mayor Bill White said Saturday. His police department received 28 burglary calls overnight and made 16 arrests — less than a typical Friday night, White said.

Rain drenched parts of New Orleans early Saturday, straining the levee system already damaged by Katrina. Up to three inches of rain was expected throughout the day, less than had been previously forecast.

"Overall, it looks like New Orleans has lucked out," National Weather Service Meteorologist Phil Grigsby said.

Heavy rain fell south of New Orleans in low-lying Jefferson Parish, where a tidal surge of six to seven feet swamped some neighborhoods. Residents of Lafitte, a town of 1,600 south of New Orleans, were being evacuated by bus.

Fires were reported in and around Houston, including one in a two-story apartment building in southeast Houston that left at least eight units damaged, authorities said. Nobody was hurt, according to District Chief Jack Williams. Several buildings were damaged or destroyed by fire in Galveston, and a blaze broke out before dawn at a shopping complex in Pasadena. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

In the nine-story Elegante Hotel in Beaumont, near where Rita struck, wind blew out massive windows in the hotel lobby, bringing down a chandelier and ripping the roof off an other section of lobby.

"We stayed in a stairwell most of the time," Rainey Chretien, who works at the front desk. "I didn't think it was going to be this bad."

In Tyler County in eastern Texas, high winds ripped roofs off several buildings, including the police department in Woodville, sheriff's Chief Deputy Clint Sturrock said.

The junior high school in nearby Warren also lost its roof, and fire — likely triggered by lightning — broke out in a pile of logs. "We just let it burn," Sturrock said.

In Newton County, on the Texas-Louisiana line, power was out and the wind was howling. "It's blowing so hard here at the jail, it's about to suck the doors out," said county Judge Truman Dougharty.

He said trees were down throughout the county but that few calls were coming in to the sheriff's office — probably because few people had phone service.

"All we can do is hang on," he said.

More than 675,000 CenterPoint Energy customers in Texas were without power in the company's service area, which stretches from Galveston into Houston north to Humble, company spokeswoman Patricia Frank said. Entergy spokesman David Caplan said about 250,000 of its Texas customers in the storm-affected area were without electricity.

Rita's heaviest rains — up to 3 to 4 inches an hour — fell in Lake Charles, La., National Weather Service meteorologist Patrick Omundson said. The town had 8 inches of rain more than two hours before the storm's landfall. Near the coastal town of Cameron, the weather service recorded a wind gust of 112 mph as the storm's center approached.

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