Hurricane Rita Makes Landfall on U.S. Gulf Coast

Hurricane Rita made landfall early Saturday, bringing a 20-foot storm surge and warnings of up to 25 inches of rain, according to the National Hurricane Center.

After hitting the Gulf Coast at 3:30 a.m. EDT as a Category 3 storm, Rita flooded low-lying regions, knocked power out to nearly a million customers and sparked fires across the region before weakening to a Category 2 storm, according to a report by the Associated Press.

Fires were reported in and around Houston while several buildings were damaged or destroyed in Galveston, however there were no immediate reports of injuries.

National Weather Service meteorologist Patrick Omundson told AP that Rita's heaviest rains — up to 3 to 4 inches an hour — fell in Lake Charles, La. The town had 8 inches of rain more than two hours before the storm's landfall.

Although there were no immediate reports of fatalities, rescuers in many areas had to wait for winds to subside before launching searches, the AP report added.

President Bush had put 10,000 federal troops on standby to deal with Rita’s aftermath, while local Red Cross volunteers were on standby this morning awaiting instructions to deploy into Hurricane Rita's storm zone if necessary.

The Salvation Army – the second largest disaster relief organization in North America, behind the American Red Cross – announced yesterday that it was deploying additional mobile rescue units and staffing throughout Texas and neighboring states to assist in Hurricane Rita response efforts that are expected to at least equal the manpower and equipment utilized for Katrina during the past four weeks.

Before Hurricane Rita made landfall this morning, Salvation Army emergency response crews were preparing to serve as many as 560,000 hot meals per day at designated shelters and from vehicles dispatched from the staging areas to hardest hit locations. The Army works in conjunction with federal, state and local agencies to immediately provide meals and assist with sheltering those affected by storms, and has already provided more than 4 million meals to Katrina survivors.

Meanwhile, in the days before the Rita’s arrival, hundreds of thousands of residents of Texas and Louisiana fled their homes in a mass exodus that saw traffic backed up from Houston to Baton Rouge, with highways leading inland out of Houston clogged for up to 100 miles north of the city.

According to AP, about 3 million people had fled the Texas-Louisiana coast ahead of the storm, motivated in part by the devastating toll that Katrina inflicted on the Gulf Coast barely three weeks ago.

Prior to making landfall, Rita’s effects were already being felt in Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, where rainfall breached a fractured levee, leaving dozens of blocks in the city's Ninth Ward under water.