09/22/2005 11:00PM

Hunkering down in Houston

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The Houston Texans have a bye this weekend on the NFL schedule, which might be just as well, since they are 0-2 so far this season and have scored just 14 points in those two games, prompting intense local criticism and the acquisition of a new offensive coordinator. Oh yeah, and then there's that hurricane.

Robert McNair, the owner of the Texans, was at home in Houston with his wife Friday afternoon, taping up windows and battening down the hatches as Hurricane Rita continued to make its slow march toward the Texas coast. Outside, thousands of their fellow Houstonians were still evacuating the city, even as Rita was downgraded to a category 3 and began tilting farther east. The McNairs, known in the racing industry for their Stonerside Stable stars such as Congaree and Chilukki, had decided to ride Rita out.

"We're securing our home, trying to do everything we can," said Janice McNair. "We will just hunker down in the center of the house, and I think we will be all right. Let me get Bob off the ladder. I'm sure he would love to talk to you."

Whoa. Careful, Bob. The last time a ladder made racing news was during the hurricane season of 2004, when Jerry Bailey took a tumble while securing the storm windows of his Miami area home and fractured his wrist.

McNair, obviously far more athletic than Bailey, alighted without incident and picked up the story.

"Hopefully, the storm will pass to the east of us," McNair said, "and if it does that, we're on the backside of the eye, which doesn't have as much force."

He sounded like a veteran who had been through this before. The McNairs, in fact, have lived in Houston since 1960. In 1961, the eye of Hurricane Carla, a category 5, passed directly over the city.

"They're unpredictable, so you can't be complacent about it," McNair said. "We've been through other hurricanes, so it's not our first rodeo, as they say. But we've been through nothing quite as severe as this could be."

Just down the road at Sam Houston Park, a skeleton crew of security personnel patrolled the facility and braced for Rita's landfall. Martha Claussen, the track's director of communications, was at her nearby home preparing for the worst.

"This is wild," Claussen said. "I've lived here 25 years, and we've seen lots of tropical storms, and tropical depressions, and even hurricanes. But nothing like this. The mass evacuation has been unbelievable."

Claussen, her husband, and their barking Weimeraner had decided to stay put.

"I have a daughter who goes to college in Austin, and I could have headed there," she said. "But a three-hour trip to Austin is now taking more than 10 hours. A trip to Dallas normally takes four hours. Now it has been clocked at 20 hours. People are running out of gas along the way.

"From the track's standpoint, we are fortunate that we don't have live racing right now," Claussen noted. "I can't imagine how difficult it would have been with all the people associated with live racing, not to mention the evacuation of horses."

The Sam Houston Quarter Horse meet ended Sept. 11 and the horses have moved on to Lone Star. The Thoroughbred sport is scheduled to return to Sam Houston on Oct. 28. In the meantime, the track has been open for simulcast customers.

"We're located in northwest Houston," Claussen said, "just south of the international airport and about 60 miles north of Galveston. The track is not near any water, but in parts of Houston, if this hits us like they predict, there will be a lot of flooding. We have a couple areas near the center of the city near bayous that are sure to overflow."

The last time Houston got in the way of a serious event was June 5, 2001, when Tropical Storm Allison dumped two feet of rain on downtown Houston to the accompaniment of 65 mile per hour sustained winds. The toll was 22 dead and $5 billion in damage.

"That's why we've closed the track as a precaution this time," Claussen said. "Allison hit us the night before the Belmont Stakes, and we didn't quite prepare enough. We had about 60 patrons and employees who ended up spending the night. The facility itself was fine, but the parking lot and feeder roads were all under water."

This time around, Hurricane Rita is promising winds twice the power of Allison.

"Basically, we've secured everything we can at the track," Claussen said. "But like our general manager Ann McGovern pointed out, when you've got 100 mile per hour winds, you can only do so much. There will be a skeleton crew at the track for security. But for the most part we've told our employees to go home and keep their families safe."

And hunker down, just like the McNairs.

"It's a very strange feeling, to be so basically helpless in the face of Mother Nature," Claussen added. "Today it's clear, not a breath of wind, and very hot. It's hard to believe that something is coming to turn everything upside down."