Ten Years after Rita, the Forgotten Hurricane
Mike Louviere – For The Record
The 2005 Atlantic Hurricane Season would see three of the six most intensive hurricanes ever recorded strike the United States. Hurricane Wilma, rated at the strongest would hit South Florida in October. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans causing levees to break and devastating flooding in early September. Katrina was rated as the sixth strongest recorded storm. Three weeks after Katrina made landfall, Hurricane Rita made landfall between Holly Beach, Louisiana and Sabine Pass Texas. Rita would come ashore as a Category 3 hurricane with120 mile per hour winds. The strong storm did not die until it had reached the Great Lakes Region. Rita was rated as the fourth strongest recorded storm. It was one of the most devastating storms to hit Orange.
Rita never received the news coverage that it deserved since it followed Katrina by three weeks, news reporting , search and rescue, and restoration efforts in New Orleans took the lion’s share of resources.
A simple tropical wave off of the coast of West Africa had formed into a tropical storm off the coast of the Bahamas on September 18 and began crossing the Gulf of Mexico, on September 21 the winds had peaked at 180 miles per hour. It weakened by landfall, but was still dangerous.
Officials in Orange County had been watching the storm develop as it traveled across the Gulf of Mexico and had been discussing evacuation. They did not want to see the devastation caused in New Orleans to happen in Orange County along with the loss of life Katrina had caused. Evacuation was finally called by officials in Orange County. Over 19,000 residents would join what would become the largest mass evacuation in United States history. Estimates vary from 2.5 to 3.7 million people evacuating along the Gulf Coast.
Landfall was predicted for Saturday, the 24th. By Thursday so many evacuees had taken to the highways that the system was gridlocked.
Travel time to Dallas was taking from 24 to 36 hours from Southeast Texas. West to Austin was averaging 12 to 18 hours and to San Antonio along I-10 it took as long as 16 hours.
Some Orange evacuees reported travel time to the Toledo Bend area from Orange taking as long as 12 hours. The highway system was not designed for such a heavy traffic flow. Even after the contraflow lanes were established, travel time was not reduced that much.
Those on the road were also having problems running out of gasoline, finding places to use the restroom, places to eat, simply being able to just get out of their cars and rest a little without losing their place in line. The evacuation traffic lasted 48 hours.
Temperatures on the road were approaching 100 degrees. Running the air conditioners was using gasoline, so some began to turn their air conditioners off to save gas. As a result, they were sitting in the heat, getting overheated, and in some cases not drinking enough water trying to avoid needing bathroom breaks. There were 67 heat related deaths on the highways during the evacuation.
Statewide, 120 deaths would happen during the time Rita was in Texas.
Rita caused massive damage from the high winds. Over half the houses and two-thirds of the businesses would suffer serious damage. Thankfully there was not much flooding, but the loss of property from the winds was extreme. Literally thousands of trees, some too large to reach around were uprooted or blown apart. Some crashed down onto residences, damage from roofs to entire loss of the residence happened.
The strong wind knocked the copper dome on the First Presbyterian Church askew, exposing part of the only opalescent glass dome in the United States, and punching holes in stained glass panels next to three of the 16 angels in the dome.
About a third of the roof of the Orange Public Library was peeled back. Water damage occurred to many of the books in the stacks and mysteriously, a blue crab was found in the stacks.
Two of the notable landscapes that were forever changed were at the Sunset Grove Country Club and the Brown Estate. Between the two over two thousand trees were destroyed.
Playing on the Donald Ross designed golf course once called “The Monster” because of the numerous trees was forever changed and the course opened up because of the loss of the trees along the fairways and in the rough areas.
At the Brown Estate, the large white home became highly visible from the highway after being designed to be partially secluded. The large front lawn had been covered with large pine trees, only a few remain now.
It took about two weeks after the storm for Orange to be reopened. Power lines had to be restored and gas lines had to be repaired. Water systems needed to be checked and recertified. Streets and highways had been cleared so that the evacuees could have safe driving conditions when they return.
Once people returned home and damages were assessed, the work began to rebuild.
Stores were slowly reopening, in some cases before utilities were fully restored. Store officials would only allow a few customers at a time in the stores, accompanied by a store employ with a flashlight.
The local McCoy’s store set a sales record for the entire chain by selling 100 generators for $800 apiece in one day. Sales of chainsaws also approached record numbers anywhere they were sold.
“Storm Chasers” came into the county doing tree removal, roof repair, and any and everything that needed to be done. Some were good workers that did the jobs competently and at a fair price and there were some on the other end of the spectrum. Who you hired and how they worked was in some cases the luck of the draw.
An estimated one million cubic yards of debris accumulated. Blue tarps covering roofs were numerous.
Things slowly returned to normal in Orange. The library reopened in February and the heavily damaged Dairy Queen in April.
“I think what happened in New Orleans shocked people, so when we asked them to leave, they did”, said Orange City Manager Shawn Oubre.
Whether or not people would evacuate again after their experience running from Rita would be a moot point until September, 2008, when Hurricane Ike approached Orange, Ike would make landfall almost three years to the day after Rita.
The name “Rita” was retired from the hurricane list of names in 2006. In 2011 it was replaced by “Rina”.