Wednesday September 21st, 2005

Hurricane Rita reaches Category-Five…Evacuations underway in advance of Rita…Oil drillers continue preparations in offshore Gulf of Mexico as Hurricane Rita strengthens and approaches Texas coast… Forecasters say Hurricane Rita is up to category-five strength–the top of the scale–with sustained winds of 165 miles an hour. They say the storm could be the most intense hurricane […]

Hurricane Rita reaches Category-Five…Evacuations underway in advance of Rita…Oil drillers continue preparations in offshore Gulf of Mexico as Hurricane Rita strengthens and approaches Texas coast…

Forecasters say Hurricane Rita is up to category-five strength–the top of the scale–with sustained winds of 165 miles an hour. They say the storm could be the most intense hurricane on record to ever hit Texas. There’s also concern that Rita, still about two days away from the Gulf Coast, could turn out to be one of the most powerful storms ever to strike the U. S. mainland. The hurricane is expected to make landfall along the Central Texas coast sometime Saturday. But even a slight turn to the right could deal a devastating blow to New Orleans.

Mandatory evacuation orders currently cover all of Galveston, low-lying sections of Houston and Corpus Christi, and a mostly empty New Orleans. In all, about a million people along the Gulf Coast have been told to get moving. Houston’s mayor this morning urged residents most at risk from Hurricane Rita to start getting out, and the traffic on region’s highways and interstate roads indicate people are heeding his advice. Mayor Bill White says people living in areas prone to flooding or threatened by a storm surge should leave. He also urges evacuation for people in mobile homes or other buildings that “common sense” would indicate are too weak for the storm. Most area schools closed tomorrow and Friday to enable people to leave. The mayor says the government doesn’t have the capacity to evacuate everyone, so people should help one another.

Governor Rick Perry today urged coastal residents from Beaumont-Port Arthur to Corpus Christi to move inland as Hurricane Rita approaches. Perry warned that a full evacuation of the coast would take at least 33 hours, and he warned coastal residents not to wait for a mandatory evacuation order. He says Rita would “quite likely be a devastating storm” as the Category Four storm approaches the coast with winds of up to 140 miles per hour. He urged coastal residents to calmly gather important documents, secure their homes, fuel their vehicles and move inland.

Galveston residents packed up mementoes and pets and began leaving the island city today. That’s after Hurricane Rita intensified into a Category Four storm and threatened to attack the Texas coast or already battered Louisiana by week’s end. Earlier today, hospital and nursing homes in Galveston were evacuated. Other Galveston residents gathered up belongings and began leaving. Buses are leaving Galveston County, which has about 267,000 residents.

Some cities across Texas today braced for in-state evacuees from Hurricane Rita. A number of Texas communities have been providing shelter to Hurricane Katrina evacuees from Louisiana. Now some of those cities face possible double-duty. Dallas city spokesman Celso Martinez says they’re hoping the federal government can be more creative and innovative in the use of federal installations. Martinez says the same goes for the state coming up with other alternatives using state resources–rather than city facilities. Plano fire chief and emergency management coordinator Bill Peterson says they’re “chock-full” of Katrina folks right now. Lubbock was prepared itself to host up to 1,500 Katrina evacuees. But Mayor Mark McDougal says the city only got about 430–and Lubbock officials and residents are eager to accommodate more. Authorities are preparing to house as many as 600 Gulf Coast residents at the Reese Technology Center, which is a former Air Force base.

The federal government has rushed hundreds of truckloads of water, ice and ready-made meals to the Gulf Coast and put rescue and medical teams on standby. Crude oil prices rose again on concern that Rita would smash into key oil facilities in Texas and the Gulf. Workers have been pulled from offshore oil rigs. Texas is the heart of U. S. crude production and accounts for 25 percent of the nation’s total oil output.

The acting head of Federal Emergency Management Agency promises a “big difference” in its response to Hurricane Rita from the previous response to Hurricane Katrina. FEMA Acting Director R. David Paulison says all communications are being taken “very seriously.” He also says the agency is depending much more heavily on the Defense Department and the National Guard. He stresses that communication between agencies is imperative to an efficient response to another hurricane crisis. He says his top priority would be ensuring that Texas has adequate safeguards in place to cope with any level of damage.

Oil drillers continue their preparations in the offshore Gulf of Mexico oil fields as Hurricane Rita strengthens and approaches the Texas coast. BP, had already moved workers from platforms off the Alabama coast. Now, it says it’s also removing nonessential employees from platforms in the western Gulf–farther from Rita. Gulf driller Transocean dragged four moveable rigs in the central Gulf out of the storm’s projected path. It also removed about 500 workers from three rigs anchored to the Gulf floor. Irving-based Exxon Mobil says it’s moved about 200 employees and contractors from platforms in Rita’s path. Exxon says that’s caused a “limited impact” on oil and gas production. Chevron, Anadarko, Apache, Shell Oil, ConocoPhillips and others also have removed nonessential employees from many rigs and platforms. As of yesterday afternoon, the Minerals Management Service reported that 15 drilling rigs had been evacuated. That’s up from nine on Monday and represents about 11 percent of the drilling activity on the Gulf.

BP began closing parts of its big Texas City refinery today as Hurricane Rita continues to spin across the Gulf of Mexico toward the Texas Gulf Coast. BP’s move underscores the serious threat Rita poses to the Texas coast and its trove of refineries–which accounts for one fourth of the nation’s oil refining capacity. BP refinery spokesman Neil Geary says non-essential personnel are being sent home after the refinery elevated its threat level to the second of three phases. The refinery would be closed if officials expect the plant to be hit within 24 to 36 hours by a storm with winds of at least 75 miles per hour. Rita’s expected to make landfall along the Texas coast this weekend. Rita threatens to compound the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, which knocked out four Louisiana refineries that accounted for about five percent of the nation’s oil refining capacity. Those plants are not expected to resume operations any time soon. Oil and gasoline prices could spike again if Rita causes additional disruptions in supply.

The company responsible for most of the Houston area’s electrical utility system has recalled its workers from areas hit by Hurricane Katrina. A spokeswoman for Houston-based Centerpoint Energy says residents should prepare for life without power for up to two weeks if Hurricane Rita hits the Texas Gulf Coast. Centerpoint Energy operates transmission lines that serve most of the more than four million people in the Houston area. Residents may receive electricity through another utility, but those utilities pay Centerpoint for power that comes over its lines. In anticipation of electricity problems, generator suppliers are also bringing back equipment leased to Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama companies. Generator supplier Stewart & Stevenson says more generators are becoming available as power is restored in the Katrina areas. Those generators are being trucked to southeast Texas.

The Texas Association of School Boards/School Administrators postponed this weekend’s Houston convention because of Hurricane Rita. About 11,000 people were expected to attend the three-day convention in Houston. The gathering was rescheduled for later this year. However, experts say the rooms freed up by the cancellation may not become available to coastal evacuees seeking refuge from the storm. The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau says hotels may just shut down. Pat Miller of the Texas Hotel and Lodging Association says Houston’s occupancy rate was between 90 and 95 percent, in part because of Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Miller says about 25,000 rooms are available statewide, with the most in Dallas. Hotels in San Antonio, Austin, Beaumont and Tyler are nearly full.

Officials at facilities that handle sensitive biological and nuclear materials are preparing for Hurricane Rita if it hits the Texas Gulf Coast. One of the few certified U. S. labs handling the world’s most infectious, lethal viruses is at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. That campus is less than a mile from the Galveston seawall. Lab Director Michael R. Holbrook says workers there have already destroyed lab cultures in which viruses were growing and will begin packing the lab up today. The remaining viruses will be sealed and locked in freezers. Then, if Rita still threatens tomorrow, the lab will be fumigated with formaldehyde. The South Texas Project Nuclear Power Plant near Bay City will shut down its two reactors before hurricane-force winds hit the complex. Plant spokesman Edward Conaway says workers there have started tying down any equipment that can’t be brought indoors.

The nation’s largest mobile home maker has received a government order to build 2,000 models for Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Tennessee-based Clayton Homes has operations in Waco. Clayton spokesman Chris Nicely says the Federal Emergency Management Agency is requesting delivery by December 1st–and that won’t be a problem. The homes likely will be built at Clayton plants “closest to the Gulf,” including some in Texas, Georgia and Tennessee. FEMA says at least 30,000 travel trailers would be ready in Louisiana by October 18th. Louisiana officials are working to locate land for the homes. FEMA has awarded another contract–to the Fluor Corporation of Aliso Viejo, California to build temporary housing units. Clayton earlier shipped about 1,800 homes to a FEMA staging area at Texarkana.

An Illinois regulatory judge ruled today that Peoples Gas refund customers $128 million a watchdog group says was overcharged due to secret deals with Enron. The Citizens Utility Board said in a statement that if the ruling is approved by the Illinois Commerce Commission, the refund would average about $160 per customer. The Citizens Board had asked the commission to review prices Peoples Gas customers paid during the winter of 2000-2001, when bills spiked along with natural gas prices. It argued that overcharges stemmed from the Enron deals. Enron collapsed in 2001. Peoples Gas, which delivers natural gas to one million homes and businesses in Chicago and its suburbs, argued its prices were lawful and in line with utilities across the state.

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