Rita and Weep

Texas, home to the country's largest refineries, has yet to be declared a disaster area by Bush

 WASHINGTON, D.C.—As the Texas coast begins to feel the effects of Hurricane Rita—now a Category 5 storm—there are signs the U.S. government isn't much better prepared to handle this disaster than the last one.

Amidst rampant speculation, oil prices jumped $1 a barrel in trading from fears of a direct hit on oil refineries in the Houston area. They produce a quarter of U.S. gasoline and other petroleum products. Rigs were shutting down and crews being evacuated. The government did nothing to control gas prices in the Hurricane Katrina disaster, and it is doing nothing as Rita approaches.

Texas has yet to be declared a disaster area by Bush. While state and local officials are trying to move elderly and indigent residents of the Galveston out of the area, many don't have any means of transportation and the city is not prepared to evacuate them in large numbers. Galveston is expected to totally disappear under the water in a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. Texas has limited social welfare services and last week made a deal with the federal government in Washington to limit the availability of Medicaid health insurance. So health care may not be any more available than it was during Katrina.

Sometime today the Texas coast will begin to feel the storm surge from Hurricane Rita. In the worst case scenario a 22-foot storm surge will begin slowly, rising a little, hour by hour. Then, as the storm draws near, the water will rise 12 feet in 30 minutes. At this point evacuation from low lying areas will be impossible.

Dr. Neil Frank, a hurricane expert at the University of Texas, said computer models show that in a Category 5 storm, Galveston island would totally disappear under the water, and that areas around Houston and its shipping channel would be inundated. House roofs are not built to withstand winds of more than 125 mile per hour, and would likely tear off by the thousands. Frank said Galveston would end up looking like the Mississippi coast after Katrina.

Texas Governor Perry was waiting for President Bush to say Texas is a disaster area and eligible for 100 percent reimbursement for counties hit by the storm. "The disaster declaration is very important to get that started so we don't get caught up in any bureaucratic malaise," Perry told the Houston Chronicle, adding that Texans have adopted "a somewhat blasé attitude" because so much time has passed since a major hurricane threatened the Lone Star State. It has been more than 22 years since Hurricane Alicia battered the Houston-Galveston area. "I think Katrina got everybody's attention," he said. "It's no longer the boy calling wolf."

Unlike Katrina, Rita is likely to have a direct effect on the oil business, quite probably sending gasoline prices even higher than they are now. Mobil and BP, along with other oil giants, have major refineries—Some of the U.S.'s largest—in the Houston and Port Arthur region of east Texas. There's plenty of crude oil, and experts were a bit startled at new Energy Department figures showing crude supplies are still higher than last year, and that gasoline inventories have risen, not fallen.


Additional reporting; Isabel Huacuga

 
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