Rita Weakens to Category 4, Still Considered 'Extremely Dangerous'

After peaking last night as a Category 5 hurricane with 175 mph winds, Hurricane Rita weakened this afternoon to a Category 4 storm, but is still considered to be, “extremely dangerous” by forecasters.

Rita’s maximum sustained winds are now measured at 145 mph, with the storm centered at about 405 miles southeast of Galveston, Texas, according to the National Hurricane Center’s 4 p.m. CDT advisory.

Forecasters expect the storm to hit near the Houston area early Saturday with at least Category 3 intensity. The last major hurricane to strike the Houston area was Category-3 Alicia in 1983 that left 21 people dead.

Over 1.8 million residents of Texas and Louisiana have been ordered to evacuate, with officials urging people not to delay.

“Don’t follow the example of Katrina and wait,” said Harris County Judge Robert Eckels in Houston. “No one will come and get you during the storm.”

Evacuation efforts in Houston have left severe traffic jams in the area, with highways clogged up to 100 miles north of the city.

Police officers were reported carrying gas to motorists who ran out, as gas stations along the evacuation route began running low on fuel.

In an effort to speed the evacuation, Texas Gov. Rick Perry halted all southbound traffic into Houston along Interstate 45, opening all eight lanes to northbound traffic out of the city for 125 miles.

Texas authorities are also planning to airlift about 9,000 nursing home residents and homeless people out of the Houston area.

In Corpus Christi, where evacuation is now voluntary, buses were sent to pick up those with no other transportation.

President Bush on Wednesday declared Texas to be in a state of emergency, allowing federal officials to take command of relief efforts in the area.

FEMA is currently leading relief operations out of an office in Austin, which was set up two weeks ago to aid in Texas’ response to Katrina.

The office currently has 45 truckloads of water, 45 truckloads of ice, and eight truckloads of ready-to-eat meals on standby, according to the Associated Press. Nine urban Search and Rescue Task Forces and nine Disaster Medical Assistance Teams are also on call.

Adm. Larry Hareth of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, who has been tasked with overseeing the federal response to Hurricane Rita, told CNN that the government is, “prepared to conduct an extraordinary series of life saving and life sustaining activities.”

Texas Sens. John Cornyn (R) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) were grateful for FEMA’s efforts.

“We appreciate the extensive efforts currently under way by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate with state of Texas disaster response personnel to prepare for Hurricane Rita,” the senators said in a joint statement. “We will continue working to ensure that the federal government is an effective partner providing the necessary resources and personnel now, and following the storm’s landfall.”

In a statement made at the White House this morning, President Bush again urged Texas residents to comply with evacuation orders.

“This is a big storm, and it’s really important for our citizens there on the Texas coast to follow the instructions of the local authorities,” Bush said. “Officials at every level of government are preparing for the worst.”

Bush is scheduled to fly to Texas and Colorado on Friday to visit with emergency workers and the U.S. Northern Command headquarters ahead of Hurricane Rita, the White House reported this morning.

Numerous volunteer organizations are also gearing up for Rita’s impact.

Jim Burton, director of volunteer mobilization at the North American Mission Board, the parent organization for Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, says that preparing for Rita is going to be a stretch.

“We are already engaged in the largest natural disaster in recent U.S. history,” Burton told the Baptist Press. “To now gear up for another hurricane when there is so much more work to do in the Gulf….that’s going to be tough, [but] we have the capacity to respond to both.”

The Salvation Army released a statement on Monday saying that they are confident of their abilities to effectively respond to, “any need Rita might impose on the Texas coast,” and have placed personnel on standby for immediate deployment.

“With much of our equipment and personnel still serving in the areas affected by Katrina we are having to look carefully at our available resources,” said Captain John Birks, Texas Divisional Secretary for Disaster. “We have approximately 18 mobile feeding units we will stage in a location ready to respond. We won’t know that location though until later this week as we watch the projections for landfall.”

Christian relief and development agency International Aid announced today that its hurricane relief operations, which have been in place since Katrina struck on Aug. 29th, are now preparing to conduct an additional aid distribution effort in the wake of Hurricane Rita.

The Michigan-based agency expects to draw on the assets it has already assembled in the region during the past three weeks, which include on-site relief distribution and logistics teams; its major relief distribution center at Stennis International Airport in Hancock County, Miss.; close working ties to local and federal officials; and the agency’s extensive donor network.

“We have the process and infrastructure in place to wage an expanded Gulf Coast relief effort on two fronts,” said Myles D. Fish, International Aid President and CEO. “Our team is in continual consultation today with regional government officials in our shared command center at Stennis airport. If a temporary evacuation is ordered, we expect to return shortly, and our forward-deployed relief center will enable us to move supplies rapidly into the affected area.”

Meanwhile, AP reports that National Guard and medical units have been placed on standby as helicopters were being positioned and search-and-rescue boats from the state wildlife department were staged on high ground. Louisiana’s governor said she also asked for 15,000 more federal troops.

If Rita comes ashore as a Category 4 storm, it will be the first time since 1915 that two Category 4 storms hit the U.S. mainland in the same year.