September 20, 2005

Hurricane Rita strengthens

By Michael Christie

MIAMI (Reuters) - Strengthening Hurricane Rita lashed the
low-lying islands of the Florida Keys with rainy squalls on
Tuesday and Gulf Coast communities to the west braced for a
possible encore to devastating Hurricane Katrina.

Rita grew from a tropical storm to a hurricane with 85 mph
(136 mph) winds as it battered the fragile Keys. All 80,000
residents had been ordered out of the island chain but many
stayed behind in boarded-up homes as stormwater submerged parts
of the only highway linking them to the Florida mainland.

The hurricane was expected to strengthen further as it
moved into the Gulf of Mexico where deadly Hurricane Katrina
wreaked havoc three weeks ago.

"It's raining pretty hard (but) there's no big wind yet,"
said Keys resident Mare Contrare, who protected her house with
aluminum sheets. "At this point it seems fine," she said.

Rita's center was about 75 miles southeast of Key West,
Florida, and was expected to stay just offshore, with its
strongest winds moving over the islands. Rita was headed west
at about 15 mph (24 kph) and was expected to reach the Texas
coast later in the week, the U.S. National Hurricane Center

"If you've not left the Keys by now, stay where you are,"
Gov. Jeb Bush said. "Now it's time to hunker down."

Rita was expected to drench the Keys, a 110-mile (177-km)
island chain, with up to 12 inches of rain and send a wall of
seawater up to 9 feet high surging over the islands.

Military cargo planes evacuated the Keys' hospitals on
Monday and helicopters were on standby to carry in water, food
and other supplies if needed, state officials said.

About 1,000 Florida emergency workers were still in
Mississippi helping Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts, but
there were enough left to handle Rita, Florida emergency
management chief Craig Fugate said. Some 2,400 Florida National
Guard troops were mobilized and another 2,000 were on alert.


Florida had ample supplies of fuel, with 52 million gallons
of gasoline stored at Port Everglades, state officials said.
But that port was closed until Rita passes and the governor
urged Floridians to conserve fuel as the brief stoppage of
supply drains reserves.

Gales also whipped the Miami area, home to 2.3 million
people. About 3,900 homes and businesses were without power in
Miami-Dade County, according to state officials.

Rita is the seventh hurricane to hit Florida in 13 months.
It was expected become a major hurricane with sustained winds
of at least 111 mph (178 kph), the hurricane forecasters said.

Texas seemed the most likely target for Rita's second
strike, but Louisiana would still get the outer bands of the
storm during the weekend.

A Louisiana official warned that levees in New Orleans,
where hundreds died in Katrina's floods, would fail again if
the city were smashed by a new storm surge. Major Ray Nagin
suspended plans for some residents to return to the devastated

Oil companies only starting to recover from Katrina
evacuated Gulf oil rigs. Private forecasters said there was a
40 percent chance that damaging hurricane-force winds would
directly affect major Gulf energy production areas.

The Navy began moving its remaining fleet of Katrina relief
vessels, including the hospital ship Comfort, away from the
Gulf Coast to ride out any potential battering from Rita.

The 1,100 Hurricane Katrina refugees still in Houston's two
mass shelters faced another evacuation on Tuesday as the city
found itself in the possible path of Rita. They were to be sent
to Fort Chafee, Arkansas.

Hurricane warnings were also in effect for northwestern
Cuba, where thousands of people were evacuated from flood-prone
coastal areas. Tourists moved to secure locations and most of
Havana's 2.2 million residents stayed home, leaving the
capital's streets nearly deserted.

(Additional reporting by Michael Peltier in Tallahassee and
Marc Frank in Havana)