by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
September 22, 2005
AS RITA ROARS IN, TRAFFIC CRAWLS OUT; 20 DIE WHEN BUS LOADED WITH ELDERLY EVACUEES EXPLODES; POLICE TURNED BACK REFUGEES FROM NEW ORLEANS AT GUNPOINT, PAPER SAYS
BRADENTON, Fla., Sept. 23, 2005 (8:57am EST) -- As Hurricane Rita's 140-m.p.h. winds roared closer to Houston and points east, west and north, motorists sweltering in 99-degree heat crawled out of the region in a 100-mile-long traffic jam along Interstate 10 and other highways even after Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst promised on a radio talk show that all lanes would be opened in the same direction on a list of five highways, including I-10, and that gas tankers would resupply stranded motorists.
But the traffic snarls paled beside the horror of a large bus carrying elderly evacuees that exploded and burned this morning on Interstate 45 outside Dallas with 45 passengers aboard. More than 20 of the elderly evacuees on the bus from Bel Aire in South Texas died when an oxygen tank carried by one evacuee heated by a burning brake caught fire and exploded, authorities said. The fire resulted in a 27-mile backup as all lanes of I-45 were closed. About half of the evacuees on the bus survived, Dallas police officers said.
Half a day after a live interview on the nationally syndicated right-wing Tammy Bruce Show where Bruce said Lt. Gov. Dewhurst's promise brought hope to hundreds of thousands of stalled motorists - many moving one mile per hour for nine to 10 hours at a stretch - southbound Interstate 10 lanes remained nearly empty as northbound traffic dragged on interminably. One man told CNN he'd covered 38 miles in 13 hours of northbound driving.
There was also no sign in the extensive television coverage of the traffic jams that Dewhurst's promise of gas tankers to aid stranded motorists ever materialized, and CNN showed stranded cars and extended families waiting in the heat beside the freeway for help that apparently will never come. Some parts of Interstate 45 did have southbound lanes reversed to carry traffic northbound, however.
The Houston Chronicle reported late Thursday on its Website had aborted most lane-reversal plans as unworkable, but the absence of the promised tankers remained a mystery. However, CNN reported this morning that the tankers' nozzles were too large for civilian cars and had to be replaced by air freight this morning.
Some 15 oil refineries have been shut down in anticipation of Hurricane Rita's arrival, including the Baytown refinery owned by ExxonMobil, which is the nation's largest. The storm's aftermath may see substantial jumps in gasoline prices. Meanwhile, hundreds of cars that had run out of fuel littered northbound highways, while motorists said many stations they visited had no gas, reports said.
Hurricane Rita, once a Category 5 storm with winds up to 175 m.p.h., was downgraded to a Category 4 storm Thursday afternoon after winds subsided to 140 m.p.h., raising the likelihood that it will hit land as a slightly less dangerous Category 3 storm. However, weather officials warned that the Category 5 ranking applies only to a small area around the eye of the storm, and that strong winds towards the rim of the cone of the storm are not slowed by weakened winds at the center.
The hurricane watch issued by the center covers the coastal region from Port O'Connor in southwestern Texas to Morgan City, La., a 445-mile span that includes Galveston, Houston, Port Arthur and stretches to the outskirts of New Orleans.
In an 8pm EST bulletin, the National Hurricane Center said the storm was 350 miles east-southeast of Galveston, Tex., and about 290 miles southeast of Cameron, La., moving toward the north-northwest at nearly 10mph. "A gradual turn toward the northwest is expected during the next 24 hours on this track," the center said, bringing the storm to land on the upper Texas coast and southwest Louisiana late Friday.
On other fronts, though, the national and state responders so sorely tested and so clearly lacking after Hurricane Katrina seemed to have learned from the catastrophe and readied themselves in other ways with 13,000 mobilized National Guardsmen at the ready, and endless tons of food, water and temporary shelters prepared for the aftermath.
But on the front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, yet another incredible scandal began to unfold in public as sheriffs of several parishes surrounding central New Orleans defended their individual decisions to stop evacuees at gunpoint from entering their communities. "When the Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center deteriorated into anarchy and food and water ran short, many who tried to escape the flooded streets of New Orleans found their paths blocked.
"Gretna police fired shots over the heads of evacuees streaming across the Crescent City Connection, as bullhorns blared for them to go back to New Orleans.
"In Plaquemines Parish, dozens of sheriff's deputies raised shotguns and pistols to turn back a convoy of school buses attempting to take storm victims to safety at the Naval Air Station-Joint Reserve Base in Belle Chasse.
"And in Westwego, arriving evacuees had two choices: Leave immediately, or go to an overcrowded shelter with few supplies where armed guards accompanied by a police dog prevented anyone from leaving. The confrontations occurred largely along racial lines: African-American residents of poor sections of New Orleans facing off against majority white law enforcement agencies.
"Elected law enforcement officials remain unapologetic over their response and say they would take the same steps if the city flooded again," the Times-Picayune reported in its top Page 1 story. The entire story is available at its Website, www.nola.com.
"If you are in your house and they are rioting all around to get in, are you going to let them in?" the Times-Picayune quoted the Gretna police chief as saying. "We saved our city and protected our people," Lawson said.
Joining a growing chorus of criticism, New Orleans City Council President Oliver Thomas said Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson was "talking political."
"I think he's trying to make white folks in Gretna think he's protecting them from all those poor black people in New Orleans," Oliver said.
New Orleans City Councilwoman Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson defended the evacuees.
"We were not herding criminals, for God's sake," across the Crescent City Connection, a major bridge, after evacuation buses were delayed for hours. "We were sending poor, honest, distressed people who should have been picked up 48 hours earlier." Virtually all of those arrested for looting in the city were from there, police admitted.
Up to 500,000 people are evacuating Louisiana coastal areas today, Gov. Kathleen Blanco said Thursday, while about 1.2 million people are leaving Texas' low-lying regions in the potential path of the hurricane.
Joe Shea is Editor-in-Chief of The American Reporter. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.