Hurricane Rita made landfall in extreme southwestern Louisiana on September 24th, 2005 with an intensity of 100 knots (Category 3). About 48 hours earlier, Rita was a Category 5 hurricane with a minimum pressure of 895mb, the fourth-lowest central pressure on record in the Atlantic basin. Although Rita’s history was overshadowed by Katrina, which made landfall just a few weeks earlier, the storm provided a unique challenge for both forecasters and public officials.
Rita originated as a weak tropical wave off the western coast of Africa on September 7th. The Saharan Air Layer, commonly known as Saharan Dust, and high levels of wind shear prevented the wave from producing thunderstorm activity as it moved across the tropical Atlantic. Conditions became more favorable for development later in the month as the wave reached the Bahamas. A tropical depression formed on September 17th and the system was designated as Tropical Storm Rita the following afternoon.
Rita continued to strengthen as it tracked across the Florida Straits, reaching Category 2 status by the time it reached the Gulf of Mexico on the 20th. Over the next 18 hours, the storm underwent rapid intensification over the Loop Current, becoming a Category 5 storm with an intensity of 145 knots. Rita continued to intensify and recorded an incredible 70mb drop in central pressure in a 24-hour period. At maximum intensity on September 22nd, Rita’s central pressure was estimated to be 895mb with winds near 155 knots (178 mph).
Thankfully for the residents of the Gulf Coast, Rita did not maintain its unprecedented strength as it pushed ashore. After moving past the Loop Current the system gradually weakened to a Category 3 before making landfall near Sabine Pass as a major hurricane. Hurricane force winds spread over 150 miles from the center while tropical storm force winds stretched as far north as the Louisiana/Arkansas border. Peak storm surge of nearly 17 feet occurred on the eastern side of Rita, causing severe flooding in several parishes in southwestern Louisiana. Heavy rainfall worsened this situation, with most of southwestern Louisiana receiving 7-10 inches, with some areas receiving over 15.
Rita continued to progress northeastward after being absorbed by a front across the central United States. That accelerated movement prevented a significant flood event in the Ohio River valley, with most rainfall totals being limited to around 2-3 inches as the remnant low raced toward the Great Lakes.
Although meteorological impacts to extreme southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana were unforgettable, only seven direct deaths occurred as a result of Rita in the United States. Most citizens in the southwestern Louisiana coastal areas evacuated before the worst impacts arrived, likely significantly reducing the death toll in that area.
The majority of the storm’s causalities occurred during the evacuation in Texas, where poor planning and heightened fears, resulting from Katrina, resulted in mass gridlock around Houston. Over 100 Texans perished due to accidents, fires, and health related issues during the evacuation. Much work has since been done to streamline the evacuation process from the Houston area, including the streamlining of the contraflow process on major highways exiting the city.