Atlantic Hurricane Season 2005 continued to break records and make history. Following the tumult created by Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast in late August, and the grinding assault along the Outer Banks by Hurricane Ophelia in early September. There was a brief lull in activity in the tropics before Hurricane Rita came along. Rita, the seventeenth named storm of 2005 as well as the ninth hurricane and fifth major hurricane of the season, developed in an area similar to Katrina, and moved through the Florida Straits into the Florida Keys as an intensifying hurricane. Like Katrina, Rita passed through the warm waters of the Loop Current, which resulted in just as dramatic intensification with this storm as there was with the powerful hurricane that slammed into the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama a month earlier.
As a result of this rapid intensification, Rita became the strongest hurricane to date (September, 2005) of the 2005 Atlantic Hurricane Season with winds as high as 175 mph, but a pressure that was a bit lower than not only Katrina (902 mb), but also lower than Hurricane Allen (1980), which had previously been the third strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic. Rita's lowest pressure at peak intensity was 897 mb, or 26.49 inches of Hg. That placed it ahead of Allen (899 mb) and behind Hurricane Gilbert (1988) and the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 on the all time list of strongest hurricanes. After reaching this peak intensity, Rita, which headed further west along the Gulf Coast, showed some mercy and weakened to a strong Category Three Hurricane with 120 mph winds when it made landfall in the Sabine Pass area along the Texas and Louisiana border.
Starting out modestly, Rita had its origins as a tropical depression that developed in the vicinity of the Turks and Caicos Islands on September 17, 2005. On a track that was similar, but a bit further south than its powerful sister, Katrina, Rita went across the Florida Straits and was an intensifying storm has it rolled by South Florida and the Florida Keys. It was the second time in a month that South Florida and the Keys were hit by a developing hurricane, but since this one was largely over water, Rita brought a better punch. Many, who didn't take the storm seriously were surprised to find out that the storm packed a wallop that knocked thrill seekers off their feet, and temporarily buried them under strong waves.
That would only be the beginning though as Rita passed through the Loop Current just like Katrina had a month earlier and rapidly deepened into not only the strongest hurricane of 2005 at the time, but one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the Atlantic. Hurricane Rita, which experienced a drop in pressure of 95 mb in just 48 hours, would peak in intensity as the second of three Category Five Hurricanes in 2005 with 175 mph winds, and a minimum central pressure that bottomed out at 897 mb, or 26.49 inches of Hg. Those marks equaled or surpassed those set by Katrina less than a month earlier, and even put Rita ahead of powerful Hurricane Allen on the all time list. Allen, which was the first hurricane of a somewhat busy 1980 season, had a minimum central pressure of 899 mb, or 26.55 inches of Hg at its peak.
Rita, which also was measured to have wind gusts as high as 235 mph, would eventually be pushed down the list as would Allen and Katrina as well as even Hurricane Gilbert and the Labor Day Hurricane. Hurricane Wilma, which this site will have an article on in the coming weeks, developed during mid-October, and within a span of 36 hours, went from a strong tropical storm, to the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic with not only 175 mph winds, but a minimum central pressure of 882 mb, or 26.05 inches of Hg. Wilma surpassed the mark set by Hurricane Gilbert in September, 1988 of 888 mb, or 26.22 inches of Hg. Returning to Rita, the storm caused a massive evacuation in the Western Gulf from Brownsville to Galveston. It was estimated that approximately 2.7 million people fled in advance of the storm, which caused massive traffic jams, accidents, and even deaths.
Most notably, a bus traveling on Interstate 45 south of Dallas, and carrying a group of elderly people from Houston caught fire and exploded when the fire got in contact with oxygen tanks used by some of the occupants of the bus. When it was all over, some 24 people died in the tragedy. There were other people killed in accidents as well. In total, the Houston Chronicle reported that there were 107 fatalities that resulted from accidents that occurred during the evacuation. Poor planning was the culprit as officials waited too long to begin contaflow, or allow travelers to use the lanes of a highway going in the opposite direction to speed up the evacuation process. Consequently, a four hour drive from Houston to Dallas turned into an 18 hour ordeal. Some who were frustrated by the traffic, decided to just turn around and go home to ride out the storm.
The continued saga of poor coordination of storm planning and preparation was another similarity between Rita and Katrina. While there were fewer deaths as a direct result of Hurricane Rita, the fact that there were car accidents during evacuation that resulted in fatalities, traffic jams that put more lives at risk from the approaching storm, cars running out of gas, and people trying to conserve gas by putting their cars in neutral, getting out and pushing them along the interstate was not exactly the type of news one in FEMA, the federal government, and the state and local governments wanted to hear. More deaths occured during evacuation than the actual storm itself.
The storm eventually would come ashore as a Category Three Hurricane with 120 mph winds during the early morning hours of September 24th in the Sabine Pass area near the Texas and Louisiana border. Hardest hit communities were Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas as well as Lake Charles, Louisiana. Marsh Island also got a good dose from the storm. Cameron, Louisiana received winds as high as 111 mph. Beaumont had gusts as high as 150 mph while Port Arthur received wind gusts of 101 mph. Johnson's Bayou in Louisiana just beyond the border with Texas, had peak gusts of 116 mph. Areas also received plenty of rainfall including 5.52 inches of Shreveport, Louisiana, 9.32 inches in Baton Rouge, and 10.48 inches of rain in Center, Texas.
New Orleans, which was in the process of making great strides in its attempt to recover from the devastation left behind by Hurricane Katrina, again suffered breeches in its levee system, which caused parts of the city to flood again. Despite the setback, the mayor, Ray Nagin tried to resume a project that would return evacuees of the city to their homes to salvage what they could, and perhaps help rebuild. Galveston, which was the scene for the deadliest natural disaster in United States History from the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, was under the gun for quite some time as the storm appeared to be on course to make a direct hit over the island community several miles to the Southeast of Houston. In the end though, the city would dodge a bullet by avoiding most of the storm's impact.
The storm did have a cost though. While the number of lives lost is still being determined, anywhere between 125 and 175 people although the official toll kept on this site is currently at 121. The initial cost estimate from the storm was about $6 billion, but a recent report out of the Gainesville Times suggests that may be higher with costs now ranging between $8 and $12 billion dollars although it falls far short of the cost ultimately left behind by Hurricane Katrina along the Central Gulf. For those left behind, electricity was a problem as about one million people in Texas and Louisiana were initially without power. As with Katrina, there was the issue of threatened oil refineries and offshore drilling sites, which in turn caused fluctuations in the price of oil. Gas prices reacted by going up again to the chagrin of many drivers around the country. Fears that prices would reach $3.00 per gallon became reality as many gas stations here in Central New Jersey are still charging near three dollars for unleaded, and ten to twenty cents cheaper for regular.
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When the 2005 Atlantic Hurricane Season is over, it will be remembered as one for the record books. In the month that has passed since Hurricane Rita made landfall, five more storms formed, which set the mark for most named storms in a season at 22. For the first time since names started being used in 1950, an entire list of names for a season have been exhausted and names from the Greek Alphabet such as Alpha, Beta, and Gamma are being used. The mark for most hurricanes in a season previously set in 1969 has also been equaled with the development of Hurricane Wilma.
As briefly mentioned earlier, there have been three Category Five Hurricanes in 2005, which has never happened before. All three of those storms were among the top ten hurricanes of all time with Wilma, Rita, and Katrina. In terms of dollars, this has to be the costliest hurricane season on record just for the shear fact that Hurricane Katrina is by far the costliest hurricane on record along with the fact that there have been several other powerful hurricanes to impact the United States in 2005 including Dennis, Rita, and Wilma. Speaking of Dennis, it along with Hurricane Emily became the strongest hurricanes ever to develop in the month of July.
With all that has just been mentioned, it is amazing how quickly we forget that a month earlier, Hurricane Rita was the strongest storm of 2005, and made its mark on the all time list. Rita equaled the mark for maximum sustained winds set a month prior by Hurricane Katrina at 175 mph. Its pressure was the lowest the Atlantic Basin had seen since not only Katrina a few weeks earlier, but even Hurricane Allen and Gilbert some 17 to 25 years earlier. It experienced a 95 mb drop in 48 hours, and had wind gusts as high as 235 mph, which surpassed the mark set in September, 2003 by Hurricane Isabel in the Atlantic. Isabel, too, was a Category Five storm.
As the storm rapidly deepened, many seemed to wonder on what would be the limit for this storm. People asked, "Will the storm get any stronger?" When storm's reach Category Five strength, it is very hard for them to sustain it. Changes in upper level dynamics, dry air, eyewall replacement cycles, and concentric eyewalls are all factors that can inhibit a Cat Five storm from maintaining itself. On average, Category Five Hurricanes can only stay at that intensity for about 24 hours. Some have lasted 30 hours or more including Hurricane Isabel, and Hurricane Dog, which lasted some 60 hours at Category Five back in 1950. In the end though, Rita would show mercy, and weaken before making landfall.
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In another similarity to Katrina, Rita would gradually weaken after reaching its peak intensity. The only difference was that due to Rita's track, it would head farther west, and weaken further to a strong Category Three Hurricane at landfall near Johnson's Bayou in Louisiana. Dry air had entrained itself into the system, and some slight wind shear caused problems as well. So, despite the fact that Rita was still over relatively warm water, the environment in the vicinity of the storm was not that cooperative. You couldn't tell the folks in Vermillion Parish, Lake Charles, or Cameron, Louisiana that this storm was showing some mercy.
Rita caused impressive surge totals in those low lying areas. The fact that the barrier islands along Louisiana's coast are disappearing, and that places such as New Orleans and the surrounding Bayou Country are sinking every year will gradually make the tidal flooding from storms such as Katrina and Rita become more commonplace. Nevertheless, places in Texas such as Beaumont and Port Arthur didn't escape Rita's wrath either. The unofficial number dead from Hurricane Rita in Texas currently stands at about 45. Rita would also go on to produce some 19 tornadoes in Mississippi and Arkansas killing several there.
Already under siege by the chaos that unfolded following Katrina, FEMA had to deal with more pleas for help from the Mayor of Port Arthur as well as other nearby communities affected by the storm. Meanwhile, folks in Galveston were breathing a sigh of relief although there had been minor damage from the storm, and a fire that city firefighters had to battle while out in the elements stirred up by Rita. Houston also dodged a bullet, but still had to get evacuees from the storm to return home safely, and figure out what went wrong with the pre-storm evacuation that caused so much chaos.
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