Texas Gets Ready for Impact

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With Hurricane Rita now a full-blown Category 5 storm, with winds over 155 mph heading toward the Texas coast, few are taking the danger lightly. The city of Galveston, built on a barrier island just eight feet above sea level, ordered its first-ever mandatory evacuation Wednesday and communities to the north, including Clear Lake, home to NASA, quickly decided to send their residents packing too. Houston called for people in low-lying bayous areas east of the city to leave immediately and shut down the school system citywide. The city's hospital complex, which flooded during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, is now protected by huge floodgates, which are being lowered Friday, according to Ann Brimberry at Texas Children's Hospital, which moved its 400 sickest children to lower floors where administrators believed they would be safe. "Anyone we could send home we did, but we have preemies recovering from heart surgery," she said.

At the city's Reliant Center, refuge to thousands of Louisiana hurricane victims but built out of glass to withstand only a Category 3 storm, orange neon Do Not Enter signs are now posted on the doors. Across town at the Astrodome, also unsafe because of its glass room, families sit on piles of suitcases, waiting for yet-another transfer to yet-another safe zone. Houston city officials, mindful of the chaotic scenes from the Superdome and the New Orleans convention center, are offering evacuees a get-out-of-town pass on buses, with Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, as the destination. For some evacuees from New Orleans, like Diane Pierce, a former Tulane University Hospital housekeeper, it's almost too much. She sat on a downtown Houston sidewalk Tuesday, all her possessions in a shopping cart, after accepting three bus tickets back to Baton Rouge for herself and two children, aged 10 and 13. "I'm getting out of Texas," she said.

Although the storm is expected to hit the coast at Port Lavaca, between Corpus Christi and Galveston, the National Weather Service in Galveston warned that Rita could be a so-called "perfect storm", inundating Galveston and parts of Houston, including possibly downtown. Galveston residents started voluntarily evacuating Monday, a full five days before the storm was expected to hit. Wednesday, it became mandatory. Mindful of the problems in New Orleans, the city had buses available Wednesday morning to carry people out of the city. Early in the week, Governor Rick Perry recalled the Texas National Guard as well as Texas Task Force 1 from Louisiana for possible search and rescue duty. The Salvation Army, already hard pressed by Katrina, gathered mobile kitchens and equipment from the west.

Continental Airlines, based in Houston, offered Katrina evacuees one-way tickets anywhere in the country but 22-year-old Robin Miller and her family couldn't take the offer because they didn't all have valid IDs. Instead, the Miller family planned to take a Greyhound bus to Atlanta. As the storm headed more westerly, some decided to chance yet another storm. Ronald Mills, a 49-year-old New Orleans truck driver who rescued about 200 people by flat boat, said he plans to stick out Rita. He was staying at a hotel in Brenham, Texas, and had applied for a job at the Bluebell Ice Cream Factory. "I think I'm safe." It's a calculation a lot of people are making today.