Hurricane Rita

Timothy Horrigan; September 2005

(September 27, 2005)

Rita hit land in a relatively unpopulated area about halfway between New Orleans and Houston. The main damage in Hoston was the disruption caused by the evacuation. Many of the evacuees got hit by the storm anyway: even after Rita's winds dwindled down to Category Zero, there were massive rains (over 12 inches in some spots) and even some tornados throughout the South Central US.

The storm surge was as bad as anticipated and did a vast amount of damage, but this damage occurred in an isolated rural area on the Texas-Louisiana state line. There was major flooding in New Orleans as well, but this happened in areas which were already destroyed and depopulated.

As the evacuees were still making their way back to Houston, former FEMA director Michael "Brownie" Brown (who scandalously was given a fat consulting contract with his old agency) went to Capital Hill to testify before a House select committee. This was about as friendly a venue as Brownie could have hoped for, even though it was not exactly friendly (and Brownie didn't help his cause by responding combatively at times when he should have been showing contrition.) The panel had 9 Republicans on it and only 3 Democrats. (House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi refused to appoint any Democrats, since her party favors an independent commission. The three Democrats on the panel volunteered on their own.)

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Brownie tried to blame the whole mess on the Governor of Lousiana and the Mayor of New Orleans who supposedly were too stupid to follow proper procedures for asking for help. He also tried to make the points that recovering from a hurricane is hard work, very hard work, and that we have to deal with the aftermath using the FEMA we've got, not the FEMA we want. Unfortunately for Brownie, two of the members of the committee, Chip Pickering and Gene Taylor were conservative Republicans from Mississippi, whose state was hit even harder than Louisiana. Pickering pointed out that it simply wasn't possible for any state government, even one governed by a former Republican National Committee chairman, to produce a proper paper trail in a time of crisis, especially when they have computers, no faxes, etc. in a time of natural catastrophe. For the first time in five generally disastrous years, we see Republicans criticizing the Bush Administration.

The debate over finding the money to rebuild is beginning. President Bush is trying to pay for the whole thing with tax credits and taking funding away from other non-Iraq priorities. At least two of his proposals (the creation of a "Gulf Coast Enterprise Zone" and the suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act, which mandates union-shop wage levels even for non-union Federal contractors) would actually reduce Federal tax revenues.

Predictably, other areas of the country are unwilling to give up their own infrastructure projects (or "pork") to pay for Gulf Coast projects. The net result will probably be similar to what happened with Homeland Security after 9/11. A pot of money will be collected after the catastrophe to deal with similar future problems, but the pazooza will then be divided up "fairly" across the country, with areas which particularly need assistance being shortchanged to pay for projects in places which are not actually in danger.

(September 24, 2005)

Hurricane Rita officially came ashore at 3:30 am (or 3:38 am, according to some accounts) just east of Sabine Pass, Texas, i.e., right on the Louisiana-Texas state line. The southwestern corner of Louisiana will suffer especially great damage. Flooding in New Orleans will undo much of the progress made in recent days. Especially in the Ninth Ward and Saint Bernard's Parish.

Houston was spared the worst of the storm: the biggest problem in the Houston area will be trying to get everyone back into town. A large proportion of Houston's population is still sitting in their cars somewhere north of the city (where they will get rained on.) Of the classical four elements, fire posed more immediate problems in Houston than water: major fires broke out in Galveston and Pasadena (and possibly elsewhere.) The storm is weakening rapidly, but it will drop huge amounts of rain on Texas, Louisiana, and points north.

(September 22-23, 2005)

Hurricane Rita did not come as a shock the way Hurricane Katrina did, but it is in fact an even bigger storm. It spent several days sitting in the warmest, most polluted section of the Gulf of Mexico, soaking up energy. It is currently pointed in the general direction of Houston. It's tempting to sneer at Houston, which is (in stark contrast to New Orleans) one of the ugliest and least charming cities in America. But it is still a place which millions call home. (And ironically, tens of thousands of Louisianans are taking refuge there after Hurricane Katrina.)

The storm also poses a major threat to New Orleans. As early as Friday morning, September 23rd, a day before the storm's expected landfall, Katrina-damaged levees failed in several places. Perhaps the worst storm damage happened to the Industrial Canal, which protects the low-lying Ninth Ward.

Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for most low-lying areas in and around Houston. It was strongly suggested that everyone in the region should leave. Unfortunately, the highways leading from Houston have only a finite capacity, even when you reverse the direction of the inbound lanes. It appears that it is in fact not possible to get everyone out of the city. And even if they all get out, there's nowhere for them to stay while the storm goes by. There isn't even enough gas to keep their SUVs running while they crawl inland. It looks like we may have a repeat of the Hurricane Floyd fiasco in 1999, where tens of thousands of motorists ended up weathering the storm while stranded out on the Interstate, and in most cases arguably would have been safer at home. In a particularly tragic incident, on Friday morning, September 23rd, two dozen residents of a suburban Houston nursing home lost their lives when their bus caught on fire while stuck in traffic south of Dallas. Apparently, the bus's air-brake system overheated after the bus spent many hours stuck in a traffic jam, and the passengers' oxygen tanks ignited. (Click here to read about the bus fire story on )

The city of Houston is about 50 miles inland, but much of the city is built on flat, swampy land 50 feet or less above sea level. A worst-case storm surge could go quite far inland. And there are a number of cities in Rita's path which are built on barrier islands. Inland flooding from the rainfall is another danger. Houston has trouble handling the runoff from ordinary rainstorms, let alone from a category 4 or 5 hurricane.

The worst natural disaster in US history, in terms of loss of life, was the Galveston Hurricane of 1990, which killed approximately 8,000. The city of Galveston, which is built on a barrier island, is now a outer suburb of Houston.

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Emperor Bush apparently was embarrassed by the allegations that he was slow to react to Hurricane Katrina.  So, when Rita came along, he decided to fly off to Texas even before the storm hit. He stopped by FEMA headquarters on his way out of DC and made a statement during his photo op. His language was alarmingly weak: he said he was on his way to San Antonio to "see the pre-positioned assets"— and also to "understand the relationship" between local, state and federal governments. (And after his jaunt to San Antonio, he would be off to Colorado Springs to spend a few hours visiting a military command center called "NORTHCOM.") This is not exactly what I would call inspirational leadership. It's almost as if he doesn't understand that he is the guy in charge at a moment of real crisis. He talks like he's just some student intern from the Harvard Business School who is gathering info for his professor's next case study. Too bad Sadaam didn't hide any Weapons of Mass Destruction in Texas: maybe then Bush II could work up some enthusiasm for his job as our nation's leader, which is hard work, very hard work.

President Briefed on Hurricane Rita Preparations at FEMA
FEMA Headquarters
Washington, D.C.

12:32 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT: I stopped by the center to get a full briefing on Rita. We're now facing yet another big storm, and I appreciate the folks here who are working so hard to help the folks on the ground prepare for the storm.

I'm going down to San Antonio to see the pre-positioned assets, understand the relationship -- or that the federal government's role is to support state and local governments. I want to watch that happen. Then I'm going to go out to our NORTHCOM headquarters to watch the interface between our United States military, and again the state and local authorities. Our job is to assist -- prepare for and assist the state and local people to save lives and to help these people get back on their feet.

Again, I want to thank the people here in Washington who are working with the folks in the -- out in the field to do everything they possibly can to prepare for this second big storm that's coming into the Gulf of Mexico.

Thank you all.

Q Sir, what good can you do going down to the hurricane zone? Might you get in the way, Mr. President?

THE PRESIDENT: One thing I won't do is get in the way.

Q But I mean, how -- what good can you actually do? I mean, isn't there a risk of you and your entourage getting in the way?

THE PRESIDENT: No, there will be no risk of me getting in the way, I promise you. We're going to make sure that we're not in the way of the operations. What I am going to do is observe the relationship between the state and local government, particularly out in Colorado Springs. That's what I want to see.

See, NORTHCOM is the main entity that interfaces, that uses federal assets, federal troops to interface with local and state government. I want to watch that relationship. It's an important relationship, and I need to understand how it works better.

Q But critics might say this is overcompensation for the response to Katrina.

THE PRESIDENT: We will make sure that my entourage does not get in the way of people doing their job, which will be search and rescue immediately. And rest assured, I understand that we must not and will not interfere with the important work that will be going forward.

Thank you.

END 12:34 P.M. EDT

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But then, oddly, Bush II did not actually go to San Antonio, although he claims that he did indeed visit NORTHCOM. It is not clear exactly when he actually left for Colorado Springs, since he did a photo op with a Korean War hero later that afternoon at the White House.

(June 8, 2006)

When Did Rita Happen?

I get a lot of hits on search phrases such as "When did Hurricane Rita happen?" These queries often come from computers belonging to local school districts. So let me answer the question: the official dates of Hurricane Rita, according to the National Hurricane Center, were September 18-26 2005.  It originated just east of the Turks & Caicos Islands on September 18.  It made landfall near Sabine Pass, Louisana (near the Texas-Louisiana state line) at 0740 UTC (2:40 a.m. Central Daylight Time) on September 24. It became "extratropical," (i.e., it lost the distinctive structure of a tropical storm) early on September 26, over Southern Illinois. For more info:

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