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Awaiting Rita

Editor's Note: CNN correspondents report back on what they are seeing in communities affected by Hurricane Rita. Tragedy strikes during evacuation efforts ahead of Rita. Plus, CNN looks at the effects of Rita already being felt across the country, tonight, 8 p.m. ET.

Harbingers of Rita




Disasters (General)
New Orleans (Louisiana)

CNN's Henry Schuster in Baytown, Texas
Posted: 11:22 p.m. ET

The wind is definitely stronger. There are the flagpoles less than a hundred feet from us. Even though they are made of steel, I will be surprised if they last the night.

We lost power at our motel a while ago. To the south of us, we see occasional flashes of light as transformers blow up and another piece of Texas falls into darkness.

Cold tamales and Coldplay

CNN's Randi Kaye in Baytown, Texas
Posted: 9:57 p.m. ET

In any other circumstance this would be romantic. But it's Baytown, Texas, and we are without power.

It's been out about an hour now, and the storm isn't even really here, yet.

We are eating tamales (cold) from the last open store our cameraman found.

Our hotel owner is blasting Coldplay on the music box powered by batteries. He had tickets to the Coldplay concert and it was canceled so, clearly, this is the next best thing.

It's going to be a long night for all of us and the Rottweiler and Doberman pinscher staying in our hotel.

A shower before meeting Rita

CNN's Henry Schuster in Baytown, Texas
Posted: 9:28 p.m. ET

Why take a shower before a hurricane? I just did, because it may be the last one for several days.

All our batteries are charged and our satellite truck is up and running.

Good thing. The power at the Comfort Suites just went out.

Baytown is supposed to get brushed by the southern skirts of Rita. But already we are getting belted.

And the candles are lit down here in the lobby.

Hurricane parties under way

CNN's Lisa Goddard in Houston, Texas
Posted: 7:42 p.m. ET

It's definitely not all evacuation fears and fleeing residents in Houston.

At the Marriott, next to Highway 610 on the west side of the city, I'm watching a dozen people swimming in the glass-enclosed pool. Yes, glass-enclosed. Winds now are around 30 miles per hour and it doesn't seem too dangerous, yet.

Next door to me, in room 503, a man who would identify himself only as "Bob" says the party is under way. Bob, in what looked like a Tommy Bahama shirt, tells me he has friends who work here, and he took the offer of a comp room as both an evacuation plan and a mini-vacation.

Downstairs, it is packed to the brim -- and not with media. Home Depot is using this hotel as its command center for loss prevention. Four members of the crew, one wearing a bright orange Home Depot T-shirt, are hunkering down to a game of Texas Hold'em. The one wearing the sunglasses actually was winning.

Outside, news crews from Europe had their most serious faces on, talking about the wind and the storm, when what looked like an F-250 pulled up, blaring its horn and bearing gigantic flags: One was the star-spangled banner, the other a huge pirate banner.

Only one of the Europeans shared my laughter.

Evacuation trash

CNN's Lisa Goddard in Houston, Texas
Posted: 7:42 p.m. ET

The highways moving out of Houston are lined with garbage -- one result of the millions of evacuees moving out of the area at just a few miles per hour.

Discarded diapers, empty water bottles, half-eaten cans of tuna fish litter the sides of the highways, evacuated gas stations and any strip of land nearby where people may have stopped.

And now that trash is being whipped around for miles by the wind.

Graveyard of get-away vehicles

CNN's Ed Lavandera in Lufkin, Texas
Posted: 6:20 p.m. ET

We finally arrived in the east Texas town of Lufkin, which is about 120 miles from the Texas Gulf Coast. It took us more than four hours to make this drive today.

When we pulled in, there was an amazing sight along the road. I've been describing it as a graveyard of get-away vehicles. Many people are stranded on the side of the road. Their cars have run out of gas and they're not sure what to do next.

We just met Jennice Hall and her family. They were stranded on Highway 69. There are 11 family members traveling together in a caravan of three cars. They're waiting for other family members from far North Texas to come help them. If they don't get help soon, Jennice tells us they have nowhere to go and they fear they'll have to wait out the storm in their cars on the roadside.

Panhandling in Houston

CNN's Lisa Goddard in Houston, Texas
Posted: 5:22 p.m. ET

As the streets of Houston became more and more empty today, some panhandlers remained behind. We saw perhaps eight or nine in the course of two hours driving around the city.

I say "panhandlers" and not "evacuees asking for help" as the large majority of those we saw today had no bags with them and their signs didn't mention the oncoming storm.

One sign said, "Homeless Vet, Please Help." Another simply said, "Homeless."

It was also noteworthy that these men (they were all men) didn't seem to be looking for a ride out of town. There's a chance they could have been evacuees trying to save money for the approaching days when they may be out of work.

In general, cars seemed to be stopping and passing money to those who asked.

One person, whom I did not include in my count of panhandlers, was a man standing in a median with a backpack, who also had a small pile of water and food that drivers were giving him as they passed.

Last-minute shelter in Houston

CNN's Lisa Goddard in Houston, Texas
Posted: 4:52 p.m. ET

Some 25-feet from a cheery high school banner that reads, "Card for Katrina Victims!" and another that reads, "Pep Rally: September 26th," a group of evacuees who were stranded on the highway, are waiting on cafeteria benches and tile floors. They are glad to be somewhere right now and hoping to receive some basics like blankets and water.

Spring High School, just 10 miles or so outside of Houston, wasn't set up to be a shelter and didn't have any supplies stored for evacuees. There were no cots, blankets or large store of water.

Ralph Draper, the superintendent of Spring Independent School System, tells me he volunteered his facilities for use as shelters three days ago and the Red Cross called around 9 a.m. CT today to say they needed a building immediately. He said the last-minute need came because no one expected the 12 to 24-hour backups on Interstate 45.

Spring High sits next to I-45, but by the time the shelter opened, the roadways there were open. Many people had run out gas though and were spread throughout the area.

Emergency personnel mobilize in Beaumont

CNN's John Zarrella in Beaumont, Texas
Posted: 3:37 p.m. ET

The drive from Houston to Beaumont was very different than you would see on any other day. Very few cars were on the road in either direction.

Periodically, we passed abandoned cars. We assume they ran out of gas.

When we reached Beaumont, the entire city was shut down. Only a couple of hotels were open and they were full.

Downtown, police, fire and emergency workers were pouring into their command center, where they will ride out the storm. Besides their gear, they brought stocks of food to get through what will be a long night and day. (Watch CNN's Jamie McIntyre's report on the military's planned response to Hurricane Rita -- 1:17)

Everything was being hauled up to the 6th floor in anticipation of floodwaters covering much of downtown. The Neches River runs along the downtown and if the storm surge pushes up from the Gulf, the river will overflow its banks.

At the Civic Center just down the street, buses were loading the last of evacuees who have no idea how long they will be gone or what they will return to.

'This isn't going to be like New Orleans'

CNN's John King in Kemah, Texas
Posted: 3:04 p.m. ET

The amusement park on the boardwalk in Kemah is closed. It's already being splashed with water from the Galveston Bay as Rita approaches.

Most residents are long gone -- worried about initial forecasts that this town, roughly equidistant from Galveston and Houston, was to be directly in the path of the storm.

Now it appears Rita is likely to pass to the east, though by 3 p.m. ET Friday, there already was some minor flooding in low-lying areas.

Kevin Hemphill is among those riding out the storm -- though he sent his wife and three children out two days ago. Hemphill says he worries about flooding and maybe the looting of Bayfront homes. He tells us with a smile though, that he has "a nice weapon and plenty of ammunition. This isn't going to be like New Orleans."

Most of the stores are long closed and shuttered, but Jennifer Cohen was among those in line at one small convenience store that was doing brisk business as the winds began to pick up early Friday afternoon.

She tried to evacuate along with her husband, two children and a dog, but after 12 hours in traffic, she had gone only 50 miles and was down to a quarter tank of gas. So she decided to turn around and head home

"It was terrible -- no bathrooms and no prospect of getting gas," Cohen said. "So rather than being stranded, [we turned] the family around and headed home."

Bracing for the worst in Beaumont

CNN's Ed Lavandera in Beaumont, Texas
Posted: 1:58 p.m. ET

Most people in this Southeast Texas town either work for oil companies in the dozens of oil refineries or they work in law enforcement. This area is also home to the country's largest federal complex and several other state prisons. It's a working class town.

I spoke to Mayor Guy Goodson last night after he finished up an emergency management meeting. He left me with an eerie comment. "I saw what happened to Waveland, Mississippi, and I sure hope my town doesn't look like that after Hurricane Rita."

Evacuation plan 'wasn't worth a damn'

CNN's Chris Lawrence in Baytown, Texas
Posted: 12:48 p.m. ET

We're in Baytown, a coastal town between Houston and Beaumont. It's like a ghost town ... no stores open, hardly anyone on the street, almost everything boarded up.

But we've met several people who stayed. They all tried to evacuate Thursday, but got caught in that awful traffic jam. They sat in their cars all day, wasted almost all of their gas, and finally gave up and came back. One man told me he'd be safer in his home than stranded on the side of the road. He also said the evacuation plan "wasn't worth a damn."

The people who stayed say they're praying for the best. And they're looking out for each other. We saw one girl named Erica Whitt stop and pick up an Old English sheepdog that got loose from a kennel. She took him home and told me, "If this storm is as bad as they say, I couldn't leave him out here to fend for himself."

Gas station solidarity

CNN's Ed Lavandera in Kountze, Texas
Posted: 12:15 p.m. ET

We dropped below half a tank of gas a few hours ago as we made our way to cover a story we're chasing north of Beaumont. We finally found a lone gas station still open, but you could only pay at the pump with credit cards.

Next to me were two families piled into a Cavalier and a Prelude. They didn't have credit cards and were holding what looked like a few wadded up dollar bills. When they realized their cash was no good there they started getting nervous.

They just wanted to drive north as far as the gas tank would take them. So I told them to swing their cars around to my pump. We filled up their tanks on my credit card -- almost 50 dollars worth. I'll remember their smiling faces for a long time as they resumed their journey north again.

Woman pulls evacuees off burning bus

CNN's Randi Kaye in Baytown, Texas
Posted: 11:59 a.m. ET

I just got off the phone with a woman named Irma Camponella who told me she pulled 12 people off the evacuee bus that exploded in Dallas this morning.

She and her husband were on their way to breakfast when they saw the bus pulled over and the tire on fire. She said they stopped to help and ended up dragging 12 elderly people off the bus. Irma said they couldn't walk and the bus was filled with black smoke. It sounded so awful to me to think about those poor people who couldn't help themselves.

As Irma walked away the bus exploded and she told me she thought she was on fire. I think her story is going to stay with me for a while. (Watch CNN's Daryn Kagen talk to Sgt. Don Peritz about the bus explosion -- 3:38)

Baytown a 'Ghost Town'

CNN's Henry Schuster in Baytown, Texas
Posted: 11:45 a.m. ET

Baytown should be renamed Ghost Town.

We just drove around town and ran into a city councilman who was putting up sandbags outside businesses in the old downtown area. He was the only person we saw, aside from emergency responders.

The storm track shows Rita hitting northeast of here, but the real worry these folks have is the Houston Ship Channel and all the oil refineries and chemical plants that line it.

We saw a few gas flares still lit at the Exxon refinery, the largest in the country, but essentially all these plants have been shut down and will likely stay that way for several days.

The best case scenario is that this area will get some high winds and flooding. The worst case: Rita comes through and lays waste. To use the words of one energy analyst on CNN this morning, it will be as if the country had an "energy heart attack."

Bracing up for landfall

CNN's Rob Marciano in Baytown, Texas
Posted: 11:43 a.m. ET

After going through Rita once in Key West, Florida, we are getting ready for the second strike on the Texas-Louisiana border. Much like Katrina, Rita hit Florida as a developing storm only to grow into another historic hurricane.

Today we are trying to figure out where to set up for landfall. It's much more difficult to find a safe place in this part of the country. Everything near the coast is very low and a storm surge can travel for miles inland.

I lived and worked down the road in Lake Charles, Louisiana for 3 years and know the territory. I also know that that Southwest Louisiana is long overdue for a hurricane, and this time I'm afraid my friends there might get the worst of Rita.

Waiting for less than a gallon

CNN's Ed Lavandera, along I-10 in West Louisiana
Posted: 11:41 a.m. ET

Texans are on edge. They're not sure what to expect.

As we drove to Beaumont yesterday, we stopped at a gas station. There was a woman with several children in the car in front of us who was so frantic, I thought she had a long drive ahead and almost no gas. She waited almost thirty minutes in line to pay cash for the gas. She then pumped two-dollars of gas into her car: A 30-minute wait for less than a gallon of gas.

Water rising in Ninth Ward

CNN's Mary Snow in New Orleans, Louisiana
Posted: 11:01 a.m. ET

There is floodwater running over top the Industrial Canal levee. Our photographer on the scene is reporting that he is seeing water rising quickly. According to his estimate there is roughly about two feet of flooding in the Ninth Ward.

This is an area that was absolutely devastated during Hurricane Katrina. And this is the first significant rainfall since Katrina devastated this city three weeks ago. Crews have been rushing to shore up the levees over the past couple of days. They said they expected seepage, but they expected flooding later on.

The Army Corps of Engineers is working with contractors to remedy the situation as best they can at this point.

I spoke with a general of the Corps, who estimated that worst case scenario over the course of days, there had been several inches of rain. He thought New Orleans would be lucky if they had 2-to-4 feet of isolated flooding in areas like the Ninth Ward.

This area is devastated and there are no residents living in the Ninth Ward.

Lessons learned from Houston evacuation

CNN's Miles O'Brien in Houston, Texas
Posted: 10:38 a.m. ET

I think we all need to learn a few things about how to evacuate huge numbers of people. Clearly it would take more than a day to evacuate 2 million people from the Houston area under any circumstances.

But you have to ask why the authorities were so slow to issue the "contra-flow" order that turns the interstates into one-way tickets to high ground.

And then, when they finally did, why didn't they remove some of the Jersey barriers to allow people to make a speedy move onto the open lanes? The gridlock was still locked and only those who were lucky to get on the highway after the flow changed were able to take advantage of the concrete deliverance.

And couldn't they have averted some of the gridlock by telling people to leave in stages? Evacuating Zip Code by Zip Code might have been worth trying to avoid the colossal bottleneck.

Constance Barrett and her 10-year-old son Brandon were trapped in that mess. They left the Galleria section of Houston Thursday at 6 a.m. and ran out of gas that night in Conroe, which is about 40 miles north of the city. They are still there as I type -- Brandon making sure his pet boa constrictor Rupert and his python Jaws are well attended to.

Meanwhile cars on I-45 are whizzing by at 70 to 80 mph. Those who did not heed the call when urged, and instead waited 24 hours, are having much better luck.

Like Rupert and the python, I-45 bulged as it tried to swallow this evacuation. Maybe a little more spoon feeding would have been smarter.

Trying to 'untangle' an evacuation

CNN's Bob Franken in Houston, Texas
Posted: 9:44 a.m. ET

I saw way more of Texas backcountry today than I really wanted to.

While emergency officials flailed around trying to untangle the chaotic evacuation out of Houston, I was trying to get in.

Police blocked incoming cars to allow those lanes to handle the crush of traffic that seemed to stretch forever.

It was like trying to weave our way into an abandoned war zone.

We eventually made it.

Houston hotel hosts Katrina evacuees

CNN's John Zarrella in Houston, Texas
Posted: 9:36 a.m. ET

We stayed overnight in Houston at a Marriott Courtyard. Turns out the hotel is hosting many Katrina evacuees from New Orleans. The general manager is keeping his hotel open with only 13 volunteer employees. He said there was no way he would shut down because the Katrina evacuees had no place to go. Those evacuees occupy 53 of his rooms and he expects they will be here until the end of the year.

'Very deceptive time'

From CNN's David Mattingly in Galveston, Texas
Posted: 9:34 a.m. ET

I'm standing on the Galveston seawall as I write this, marveling at the spectacular surf that continues to roll in here. This is a very deceptive time before a major storm. The beachfront is deserted, there's a pleasant breeze and the pounding waves are mesmerizing. It's hard to believe that by late afternoon there will be tropical storm-force winds whipping this island with conditions continuing to worsen into the night. Authorities say they are very happy that 90 percent of the island's population chose to evacuate. By this time tomorrow, this will not be a place you want to be.

'Dry tanks and empty stomachs'

CNN's Miles O'Brien in Houston, Texas
Posted: 7:45 a.m. ET

We are two miles south of exit 81 on Interstate 45.

Traffic is fairly light here and moving at a good clip, but there are a lot of cars on the shoulder. As a matter of fact, we must have seen a thousand cars on the side of the road from Houston.

Every car has a tale of woe. Linda Koffel and her 11-year-old son Marcus are out of gas -- looking for those elusive tanker trucks. So far, they've had no luck. In the midst of the confusion, she and her husband split up. He went to get his ailing mother. Neither have cell phones and she has no idea where he is and says she was panicked at times overnight.

Listening to the radio with caller after caller telling a tale of dry tanks and empty stomachs, I can understand why.

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