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Hurricane Rita:
A Comparison of Winds and Storm Surge for
Southeast Texas

Montra Lockwood, Service Hydrologist
Felix Navejar, Science & Operations Officer
Sam Shamburger, Meteorologist
 
Hurricane Rita struck the coast of Southwest Louisiana during the early morning hours of September 24th, 2005.  Earlier in the week, this powerful storm reached Category 5 strength as it trekked northwest across the Gulf of Mexico.  The hurricane had weakened slightly to a strong Category 4 storm a couple of days prior to landfall.  As it approached the coast, Rita weakened to a Category 3 storm with winds nearly 120 mph.  The storm made landfall near Johnson Bayou in western Cameron Parish Louisiana, and continued to move northwest into Southeast and Eastern Texas, bringing hurricane force winds 150 miles inland.
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Hurricane Rita caused serious damage across coastal Southeast Texas.  Hurricane force winds and storm surge battered the Southeast Texas coast as the storm made landfall. As a result, many homes, businesses and other structures suffered severe damage. 
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The National Weather Service (NWS) in Lake Charles has completed a comparison of the storm surge with the strength and direction of the winds associated with hurricane Rita as it made landfall.  Wind data are provided courtesy of the NWS Automated Surface Observation System (ASOS) at the Southeast Texas Regional Airport, the National Ocean Service (NOS) site in Sabine Pass, and an Automated Weather Observation Station (AWOS) at the Orange County Airport.  Water data have been obtained from NOS sites and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) river gage locations in Southeast Texas, and Jefferson County (Texas) Drainage District 6.  All references to time are in Central Daylight Time (CDT), and water level data have been referenced to Mean Sea Level (MSL).
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On September 23th, Hurricane Rita was moving northwest across the Gulf, approaching the Southeast Texas/Southwest Louisiana coastline.  During the early afternoon, the circulation around the storm produced northeasterly winds across Southeast Texas, with wind speeds below tropical storm force (39 mph).  Water levels were generally steady.  By mid to late afternoon, winds were gusting to tropical storm force at the Southeast Texas Regional Airport and at the Orange County Airport, and water levels began decreasing in response to the strengthening north winds.
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As the eye gradually approached the coast, winds continued to be northerly over Southeast Texas.  Sustained tropical storm force winds reached the Southeast Texas Regional Airport by 7 pm, and spread as far inland as Orange by 10 pm.  The NOS gage at Sabine Pass depicted a brief drop in water levels at around 6 pm, and then rose rapidly during the evening.  NOS gages at Port Arthur, TX and on the Rainbow Bridge near Bridge City, TX each showed slight drops in the water level as well, which were followed by rapid rises.  The Sabine Pass gage failed before midnight, with a reading of 5.4 feet.  
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By midnight, the storm was churning just off the Southwest Louisiana coastline.  Wind sensors around the area had begun to fail, but the wind gage at the Southeast Texas Regional Airport remained operational.  By this time, northerly winds were gusting to hurricane force (74 mph), and became sustained at hurricane force shortly after the storm made landfall.  About one and a half hours after landfall, the wind sensor at the Southeast Texas airport recorded a peak wind of 105 mph.  Rises at inland river locations near Beaumont began after midnight, between 1 and 4 am. 
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During the early morning hours, the eye of Rita passed east of Jefferson County as it moved over Orange County.  Winds rapidly shifted from northwest to southwest and weakened.  Water levels at Port Arthur were beginning to decrease.  Water levels at inland river sites, on the other hand, continued to rise during the morning of the 24th, and crested during the afternoon.
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Although Southeast Texas was located on the western side of the eyewall as Hurricane Rita passed over the area, the area experienced significant damage as a result of the storm.  Storm surge was delayed as predominantly north winds affected the area for over 12 hours.  General storm surge values of 5 to 10 feet were observed along the coast and on Sabine Lake.
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To view the graphical wind and storm surge data for Southeast Texas, click here.

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