Hurricane Rita roared toward the Texas and Louisiana coasts early yesterday, a major Category 4 storm that spurred a traffic-snarled exodus toward higher ground and fears it could cripple the heart of the nation's petrochemical industry.
Forecasters said it appeared Houston and Galveston could avoid a direct hit as Rita veered slightly to the east, threatening its 225kph winds at the Beaumont and Port Arthur area about 120km east of Houston.
The unprecedented flight from the flood-prone Houston area left clogged highways at a near standstill, frustrating hundreds of thousands of people whose cars and tempers were overheating.
"It can't get much worse, 100 yards [91m] an hour," steamed Willie Bayer, 70, who was heading out of Houston and trying to get to Sulphur Springs in far northeast Texas. "It's frustrating bumper-to-bumper."
A bus carrying elderly evacuees from Hurricane Rita caught fire early yesterday on gridlocked Interstate 45, killing or injuring an unknown number of passengers, authorities said.
The bus was engulfed in flames, causing a 27km backup on a highway that was already heavily congested with evacuees from the Gulf Coast. Dallas television station WFAA reported that 20 persons were killed.
"There were 45 souls on the bus ... at this point we believe we have about half accounted for," Dallas County sheriff's spokesman Sergeant Don Peritz said.
The first rain bands were expected before nightfall yesterday with the full fury of Rita expected today. Forecasters warned of the possibility of a storm surge of 4.5m to 6m, battering waves and rain of up to 38cm along the Texas and western Louisiana coast.
Two Texas communities that may bear the brunt of the storm are Beaumont, which is a petrochemical, shipbuilding and port city of about 114,000; and Port Arthur, a city of about 58,000 that's home to industries including oil, shrimping and crawfishing.
Texas officials scrambled to reroute several inbound highways to accommodate outbound traffic, but many people were waiting so long they ran out of gas and were forced to park.
"We know you're out there," Houston Mayor Bill White said of the congestion that extended well into Louisiana. "We understand there's been fuel shortages."
Texas Army National Guard trucks were escorted by police to directly provide motorists with gasoline. The state was also working to get more than 760,000 liters of gas to fuel-starved stations in the Houston area.
By late Thursday night, the traffic was at least moving slowly, but was still backed up for about 160km, in what White called "one of the largest mass evacuations in American history."
Nearly 2 million people along the Texas and Louisiana coasts were urged to evacuate.