Today's Papers

Traffic, Stop

Everybody leads with the mass evacuation—and epic traffic jams—in the face of now-Category 4 Rita, which has continued to jog east a bit. A guesstimated 2.5 million have evacuated or are trying to—though only about 1.5 million have been ordered to do so. If Rita stays on its current track, Houston will likely be spared the worst of it and New Orleans’ levees will be seriously tested.

One Los Angeles Timesreporter writes—at length—about how it took her 14 hours to travel 70 miles. That was far better progress than some residents reported. As of the last update that TP saw (3 a.m. ET), CNN was still reporting gridlock.

There was plenty of confusion and panic about the traffic. Texas’ governor ordered southbound lanes on several highways reversed and opened to evacuees. But the Washington Postflags Houston’s mayor complaining about the fact that the move didn’t happen until the afternoon. The New York Times that says on at least some of the highways a contraflow was ordered and then dropped. There was talk of sending in fuel trucks to help stranded drivers, but it’s not clear if they’ve shown up.  

The NYT puts local officials through the ringer, suggesting the jam was partly brought on by the mayor’s dire and—the Times suggests—indiscriminate warnings. By late yesterday afternoon, the mayor was being more circumspect: “If you’re not in the evacuation zone, follow the news.” (TP wonders how fair the Times is being. Could the mayor really have been expected to anticipate and correct for the Katrina effect?)

Houston’s two airports were also tough going. A couple hundred federal security screeners didn’t show up for work, creating what USA Todaysays were some five-hour waits at checkpoints. The feds said they’re sending in replacements. But the airports are scheduled to shut by midday.

With Rita’s move to the east, it’s now expected to hit near the border with Louisiana. Gov. Blanco said anybody in western Louisiana who plans on sticking around should “write their Social Security numbers on their arms with indelible ink,” so their bodies can be ID’d later.

It’s already raining a bit in New Orleans, which is under a tropical-storm watch. The NYT says some of the levees have already sprung small leaks. One neighborhood—the Lower Ninth Ward —already has about six inches of new water. “The levee’s going to cave in,” said an engineer on the scene. “In the middle of the night, this thing is going to be gone.” But that might not be as bad as it sounds: The neighborhood is already lost, and a flood there could serve as a sort of safety valve for the rest of the city.

USAT describes Ritascarily but unhelpfully as “the size of Michigan.” (How big are other storms?) More solidly, the NYT emphasizes that Rita could end up dumping far more rain than Katrina did. That’s because forecasters expect that once it makes landfall, it will stall for a few days. A final bit of bad news about Rita’s eastward drift: An even higher concentration of oil rigs and refineries is now in its strike zone. A bit more than 90 percent of oil production in the Gulf has been shuttered. 

The last time two Category 4’s hit the U.S. was in 1915. One was in Galveston and the other: New Orleans.

The Houston Chronicle has set up two blogs worth watching: one by staffers and the other by “citizen journalists,” AKA bloggers.

A front-page Post piece looks at the achingly slow pace of trailer-home construction for those displaced by Katrina. Only about a 1,000 families have been moved into such homes so far. About 200,000 families need housing. But the WP buries some crucial context. As the paper mentions way down, there is bipartisan support for skipping the trailers to the extent possible and instead focusing on giving people vouchers to rent their own apartments. The Senate has already passed such a bill. But it’s being held up in the House, because the WP says (in the 25th paragraph): “GOP sources say they are waiting for a response from the Bush administration.”

The Wall Street Journal says Katrina caused 10 major oil spills, dumping nearly as much crude and other petrochemicals as the Exxon Valdez did. But it’s obviously spread over a much larger area, and the surrounding marshland tends to make a quick comeback. The larger problem, explains the Journal, is that the marshlands are disappearing.

USAT and LAT tease, the Post fronts, and the NYTweirdly—off-leads the Senate Judiciary Committee voting—big surprise!—to send Judge John Roberts to the Senate. The final score was 13-5, with three Democrats joining all 10 Republicans to vote aye. The Senate will vote in full next week. The suspense will be minimal.

The NYT goes inside with the Senate rejecting a White House-supported bill that sought, as the Times puts it, “to get food to starving people more rapidly and efficiently.” The bill would have allowed U.S. aid agencies to buy food locally rather than, as is currently required, to ship it all in, which adds about 50 percent to costs.

The Journaland NYT report that the SEC has opened an investigation into Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s sale of his holdings in his family company just before the stock took a dive. The money was held in a “blind trust,” meaning actually Frist could sell it but couldn’t know how much he had. It’s worth knowing, as the WSJ points out, “the SEC routinely investigates stock sales ahead of major news, such as an earnings warning or a merger.”

Opportunity Missed … Yesterday’s TP flagged a brief mention in the Post that so-called opportunity zones haven’t happened to create many opportunities. The WP in chimes again today, with an editorial:

The idea of spurring business activity in needy areas with tax incentives has been tried by both state and federal governments many times before, but economists who’ve looked at the record find no evidence that such schemes work. … Moreover, Mr. Bush isn’t just dusting off a failed policy tool. He’s proposing a particularly bad version of it. Unlike many enterprise zones, the GO Zone offers tax breaks for investment but not for job creation.

Why again have news pages not looked into opportunity zones?