Tracking Where Rita Isn’t Going

That’s one ferocious storm brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, and one big story to cover. Before it even hits land, Hurricane Rita has brought the news of millions of people evacuating from Houston, 100-mile-long traffic jams, and levees overflowing in New Orleans (again).

For some journalists, though, this latest disaster-to-be is cause for some hair-raising speculative scenarios far worse than anything Katrina inflicted.

Check out this lede from the AP, posted just before 5 p.m. yesterday on the Washington Post’s Web site, for a prime example:

Hurricane Rita has the potential to flood an area almost twice the size of New Orleans when it reaches shore early Saturday, causing tens of billions of dollars in damage to the Houston metropolitan area and plunging yet another major Gulf Coast metropolis into disarray.

A study performed last year by the engineering firm Dodson & Associates found that a Category 5 storm could inundate 369 square miles of Harris County, which contains Houston and some of its suburbs. The study estimated the total cost of a worst-case storm at $80 billion, with 75 percent due to flooding and the rest from wind damage.

“You’re looking at the southeast quadrant of the city of Houston, from downtown to Galveston Bay, being underwater,” said Chris Johnson, president of Dodson & Associates.

The problem? That fearsome theoretical situation is based on a Category 5 storm slamming Houston, which almost certainly will not happen — which was apparent by early afternoon yesterday when Rita was seen weakening and changing direction, setting it on course to make landfall around the Texas-Louisiana border, well east of Houston. As the AP story itself noted, “The hurricane was expected to weaken somewhat before reaching shore, but forecasters said it would remain at least a Category 3 storm until then.”

But hey, when Mother Nature is raging, what’s 369 square miles of yet-to-be-flooded land and $80 billion in very unlikely damages between friends?

Another frightful scenario was put forth by Knight Ridder’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram, in a story examining the danger posed “if Hurricane Rita slams into the barrier island” of Galveston with Category 5 force. To be fair, that story was written and published (on page A17 of Thursday’s Star-Telegram) before anyone knew with precision where Rita would make landfall. Nonetheless, we found it in today’s edition of the Indianapolis Starheadlined “Category 5 hurricane surge would swamp Galveston” — well after it was clear that Galveston was west of Rita’s path:

If Rita makes landfall as a Category 5 storm, it could produce a storm surge that would easily overtop Galveston’s 17-foot-high, 10-mile-long seawall, experts say. …

“It will inundate the entire city,” said Don Van Nieuwenhuise, a geologist at the University of Houston. “The whole island will be under water.”

The last thing anyone needs is another drowned city, but with Rita’s center likely passing northeast of Galveston (and with the greatest surge of water in any hurricane taking place just east of the storm’s center), Van Nieuwenhuise’s horrific scenario becomes pointless.

The news Rita bears is bad enough as is, and Galveston and Houston will suffer damage no matter what. But promoting unlikely scenarios of massive destruction only generates hysteria — or, if they’re printed well after it’s clear that they don’t apply, embarrassment.

Edward B. Colby

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.