Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Hurricane Rita Watch: Day Three

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.


Kari said...

excellent post, thanks for visiting my blog. I have friends down in Winnie, hopefully they are alredy heading to relatives out of the path as they had planned.

Stay safe.

Sheila Lennon said...

Good luck from the Providence (R.I.) Journal, Ron. Hope you don't need to pedal to keep the computers powered.