Rita has morphed in the past 24 hours from a tropical storm to a Category 4 hurricane .. and is expected to swell into a Category 5 later today as it barrels across the warm, energizing Gulf of Mexico. It remains aimed at Texas' mid-coast, but moments ago Texas Gov. Rick Perry called for the voluntary evacuation of coastal areas from Beaumont to Corpus Christi; our own county and municipal authorities have also called for voluntary evacuation, with the option to make it mandatory in the next 24 hours.
Our protector at the moment is a high-pressure cell that's acting as a shield, driving Rita more southerly. If the high-pressure system passes through too quickly, our shield disappears and Rita can detour sharply north toward the Texas-Louisiana line ... us. Our best-case scenario, it seems, is that we'll endure Rita's outer bands of tropical storm-force winds and rain; worst-case is that she turns directly at us.
Relentless Rita churns ahead. One hurricane guru called the devastating difference between a Category 4 and 5 as the difference between being run over by an 18-wheeler or a freight train. One might be slightly less powerful than the other, but either way you're gonna have a really bad day.
The scenario we face now, to extend the analogy, is a freight train heading at you with a 400-mile running start.
Gas stations in some surrounding communities have already sold out. I saw long lines at bank ATMs this morning. If you're looking for a small generator, plywood to board your windows, lumber to buttress your home or other structures, bottled water, a hotel room within 100 miles ... you're already out of luck here.
The mood around the newsroom is a slightly more nervous than yesterday, but certainly not disabling. We've begun to see how our focus might shift from our traditional paper-newspaper to our web site as a way to keep generating fresh, relevant news for readers who aren't here -- both local evacuees and curious outlanders who want to see what we're seeing. Our preparations are a mix of journalistic forethinking, gut reaction, and planning for the safety and comfort of our people who stay. We discuss how to power computers in a blackout, keys to the company snack bar, porta-johns in the warehouse, flexible and dynamic graphics that can be adjusted at the latest moment, who must stay and who can go ... if nothing else, we get a crash course -- on a very small scale -- of the difficulty of responding wisely, quickly and perfectly to a storm that could change course in the next hour and hit anywhere within about 500 miles.
Perhaps FEMA should be smarter about such things than a bunch of Texas newspaper wretches, but until you're casually chatting about life and death in the maw of a killer hurricane, you don't really understand how the processes become more urgent, confusing and haphazard. Many questions go unasked, leaving holes in our foresight and uneasy feelings.