Hurricane Rita has been downgraded to a Category One hurricane on a 1-5 scale, after making landfall along the Texas-Louisiana border on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Rita's maximum sustained winds have weakened to about 120 kilometers per hour, but torrential, flood-provoking rains are continuing.
Rita's eye came ashore early Saturday with top winds at about 190 kilometers an hour. It downed trees and power lines, ripped roofs from homes, and spun off tornadoes. Power surges and electrical shorts are blamed for several fires.
Meteorologist Mark McInerney of the National Hurricane Center [in Miami] says, on the positive side, Rita continues to lose strength, but the entire storm system's movement is also expected to slow.
"The movement is going to stall, or slow, as some acting forces above Hurricane Rita keep it from moving to the north, as hurricanes typically like to do," he explained. "So, this is going to be more of a rain event, and all the water that is in Rita is going to squeeze out."
Mr. McInerney says, the slower a hurricane creeps along, the greater the potential for flooding.
"When it stalls, it remains over the same area, and that is what causes the great amounts of rain," he explained.
Rita's outer rain bands cover a huge swath of territory, extending from east Texas, across Louisiana, and into Mississippi, as well as north into Arkansas. In addition to punishing winds, some areas are expected to receive rain totals of 60 centimeters or more.
More than two million people fled the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast region in advance of the storm. Despite horrendous traffic jams and several tragic motor accidents, local authorities say the mass evacuation doubtless saved lives.
Federal, state and local officials say damage assessment operations have begun, and will continue as weather conditions permit. It will likely be days before the full scope of the damage, as well as the extent of any human casualties, are known.
President Bush has been monitoring Rita as well as the federal government's response to the hurricane from the U.S. Northern Command, an Air Force base in Colorado. Speaking with reporters, Mr. Bush described federal emergency officials as "well organized and well prepared" for the storm's aftermath.
"The first order of business now is to [deploy] search and rescue teams, to pull people out of harm's way," the president said. " It is very important for the citizens of east Texas to understand that, even though the storm has passed the coastline, the situation is still dangerous, because of potential flooding."
Texas Governor Rick Perry warned state residents who fled the hurricane not to return home until officials say it is safe.
In his weekly radio address, President Bush said local officials, as well as America's private sector, will have important roles to play in rebuilding battered sections of the Gulf Coast. Mr. Bush is expected to visit Texas, his home state, later in the day.
Rita is striking less than a month after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Louisiana-Mississippi coastal region, including the low-lying city of New Orleans. Friday, storm surges from Rita overwhelmed sections of already-damaged levees, flooding parts of the city once again.