Hurricane Rita: 10 Years Later

HOUSTON – Sometimes known as "The Forgotten Storm," Hurricane Rita was a very powerful storm that slammed its way into the South Texas/Louisiana coast with a ferocity that many Houstonians will never forget.

With much of the Gulf Coast still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina less than 30 days prior, a new hurricane was forming and took aim again at a battered coastline. Rita formed as a tropical storm on Sept. 18, 2005, west of the southeastern end of the Bahamas.

Rita ramped up to hurricane strength by Sept. 20 while passing the Florida Keys and Cuba.  By the next day, Rita intensified violently as it encountered the warm Gulf water, topping out as a Category 5 hurricane with 180 mph sustained winds and a central pressure of 895 millibars which made Rita the strongest hurricane (in pressure terms) on record in the Gulf of Mexico and the fourth strongest ever in the Atlantic Basin.

Over the next few days, forecasters watched as Rita weakened to a Category 3 hurricane running into some cooler water, however still made landfall as a Cat. 3 storm across Cameron Parish, just east of the Texas border around 2:40 am on Sept. 24. She was packing sustained winds of 115 mph and central pressure of 937 millibars at landfall. At that intensity, Rita was the strongest hurricane to hit Southeast Texas since Hurricane Audrey in 1957.

Click on the link to see the radar animation of Rita making landfall from NWS Houston Doppler radar in League City: RITA Landfall.

The storm damaged much of Sabine Pass to the southwestern coast of Louisiana including wiping out areas such as Holly Beach, Lousiana, as storm surges topped 10-12 feet near the beach, completely leveling it to nothing. Here is picture of a before and after of Holly Beach, courtesy of NWS Lake Charles forecast office:

Rita unfortunately caused seven fatalities but the story that most Houstonians remember is the chaos of the mandatory evacuation issued for portions of the Southeast Texas coast ahead of the storm's arrival.

Officials worried the forecasted track a few days out was going to place the storm between Freeport and Galveston, initiated evacuations for Galveston and portions of Harris counties. The result was a legendary gridlock of traffic that still resonates to many around the region. The following is a snapshot of that day when thousands attempted to get inland resulting in one of the worst traffic jams Houston has ever seen (courtesy of NWS Houston office):

While the storm shifted eastward in its final track, the images from that day, including the death of more than 20 elderly residents that died when their bus caught fire along the highway, are etched as a permanent reminder of Rita and its impacts.

The storm eventually became the ninth costliest hurricane on record in the United States.

What do you remember about that week back in 2005? Share your comments and stories below with us. If you'd like more information about some of the details of Rita including damage photos and meteorological information, click on the link here: NWS Houston Rita portal & Hurricane RITA page

About the Author:

Meteorologist, craft beer guru, dad to Maya and Ella and a sock and cheese addict.