Hurricane Rita plowed into the Gulf of Mexico coast early yesterday, lashing Texas and Louisiana with driving rain, flooding low-lying regions, knocking power out to more than a million people and sparking fires across the region.
Rita made landfall at 3:30am as a Category 3 storm just east of Sabine Pass, on the Texas-Louisiana line, bringing a 6m storm surge and up to 64cm of rain, the National Hurricane Center said. Within four hours it had weakened to a Category 2 storm, with top winds of 161kph, as it moved further inland.
Residents in hard-hit western Louisiana called police early yesterday to report roofs being ripped off and downed trees. Rescuers were forced to wait until the winds outside died down to safe levels.
"We can't even get out to check yet," said Sergeant Wendell Carroll of Louisiana's Calcasieu Parish Sheriff's Office. "All we can hear is the wind a' howling."
The storm spun off tornadoes as it churned northwest at 119kph with winds that topped 193kph, causing transformers to explode in the pre-dawn darkness. Four counties in southeast Texas were under a tornado warning early yesterday.
In Jasper County, north of Beaumont, a house with seven people inside floated in floodwaters after it came off its foundation, said sheriff's communications supervisor Alice Duckworth.
Duckworth said the 30 emergency workers were stuck in the emergency operations center because of flooding.
"We can't get any fire trucks out," she said.
Rita spared the flood-prone cities of Houston and Galveston a direct hit.
"It looks like the Houston and Galveston area has really lucked out," said Max Mayfield, director of the hurricane center.
Fires were reported in and around Houston, including one in a two-story apartment building in southeast Houston that left at least eight units damaged, authorities said. Nobody was hurt, according to District Chief Jack Williams. Another blaze broke out before dawn at a shopping complex in Pasadena. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
In a hotel in Beaumont, Texas, near where Rita struck, windows were blown out and shards of glass and pieces of trees were strewn throughout the flooding lobby, KHOU-TV reported.
In Tyler County in eastern Texas, high winds ripped roofs off several buildings, including the police department in Woodville, sheriff's Chief Deputy Clint Sturrock said.
More than 675,000 CenterPoint Energy customers in Texas were without power in the company's service area, which stretches from Galveston into Houston north to Humble, company spokeswoman Patricia Frank said. Energy spokesman David Caplan said about 55,000 of its Texas customers in the storm-affected area were without electricity.
Rita's heaviest rains -- up to 8cm to 10cm an hour -- fell in Lake Charles, Louisiana, National Weather Service meteorologist Patrick Omundson said. The town had 20cm of rain more than two hours before the storm's landfall. Near the coastal town of Cameron, the weather service recorded a wind gust of 180kph as the storm's center approached.
In Vinton, west of Lake Charles, police could see several building fires from their station and took calls from residents reporting others at homes and businesses throughout town, Lieutenant Arthur Phillips said.
"It's tore up pretty good," he said. "We've taken quite a beating."
The storm brought chaos even far from its path. South of Dallas, a bus of Rita evacuees caught fire in gridlocked traffic, killing as many as 24 nursing home residents who thought they were getting out of harm's way.