CAPE CANAVERAL - A direct hit to Galveston by Hurricane Rita could cause extensive flooding and damage to Johnson Space Center and the homes of thousands of NASA and contract workers, government and university documents show.
A storm surge of more than 22 feet could wash across the home of NASA's Mission Control Center, which is located less than a mile from Galveston Bay in a low-lying area already prone to flooding, the documents show. [Click here for an animation of how flooding may affect the region based on orbital data.]
The prospect for devastation prompted NASA on Thursday to evacuate an 82-member emergency crew that had planned to ride out the storm at the center -- a move indicative of danger posed by Rita.
"Given the size and strength of the storm, we decided not to take any chances," said Allard Beutel, a spokesman for NASA headquarters in Washington.
"The fear is mostly from flooding, from tidal surge. There were estimates that showed the storm would put five feet of water throughout the center if they had a 22-foot storm surge."
Normal operations shut down Wednesday at JSC, which is NASA's primary center for design, development and testing of human spacecraft and systems.
The center is home to NASA's astronauts. Both the shuttle and International Space Station programs are managed there. At Mission Control, flight engineers keep a round-the-clock vigil on the orbiting outpost.
Primary control of the station has been transferred to Russia's Mission Control Center outside Moscow until the storm passes.
The 13,000 NASA and contractor employees who work at JSC primarily live in surrounding suburbs that also would be swamped if Rita comes ashore at Galveston.
Government storm surge studies and maps show the 1,620-acre center -- which sits 20 to 30 feet above sea level -- would be washed over with water in any Category 3, Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane that came ashore near Galveston.
The studies and maps were prepared by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state of Texas' Division of Emergency Management Emergency Management, and the University of Texas at Austin Center for Space Research.
The university's Center for Space Research recently completed a storm surge study of a remarkably similar, but theoretical, storm based on data from Hurricane Carla in September 1961.
Researchers employed a computerized model run by the National Hurricane Center to estimate storm surge heights and winds resulting from a Category 4 hurricane that makes landfall at Galveston with 150 mph winds.
In Harris County, where JSC is located, wind damage alone would cause $36 billion in damage, the study shows. Some 121,661 homes would be destroyed or severely damaged and another 253,666 would sustain minor or moderate damage. The number of households affected: 1.2 million.
It's too early to predict how much damage Rita might cause at JSC, said Gordon Wells, the Center for Space Research program manager who led the study.
The hurricane took a sharper-than-expected turn to the north Wednesday afternoon, and storm models showed Galveston and Houston might dodge a direct hit.
"So we'll hope for the best and hope that this storm continues on its course along the model track," Wells said. "That would take potential damage away from Harris County, which would be good news for JSC."
In the past 12 months, two NASA centers and a shuttle external tank factory have been battered by hurricanes.
In late August, Hurricane Katrina hit Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Miss., and Michoud Assembly Facility, the New Orleans factory where shuttle tanks are manufactured. The agency says it will cost more than $1 billion to recover.
Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne delivered a triple-whammy to Kennedy Space Center in September 2004, causing more than $100 million in damage.
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