September 20, 2005

Rita strengthens over Florida Keys

By Jim Loney

MIAMI (Reuters) - Rapidly strengthening Hurricane Rita
lashed the low-lying islands of the Florida Keys with 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 100 mph
(160 kph) winds in a matter of hours as it battered the fragile
Keys and was expected to strengthen further as it moved into
the Gulf of Mexico where Katrina wreaked havoc three weeks ago.

The storm was forecast to head west toward the Texas
coastline, raising fears it could bring more rain to an already
flooded New Orleans and threaten the recovery of oil production
facilities damaged by the earlier hurricane.

All 80,000 residents had been ordered out of the Keys, an
island chain, but many stayed behind in boarded-up homes.
Stormwater submerged parts of the only highway linking them to
the Florida mainland and seeped into buildings.

Rita's center was about 50 miles south of Key West,
Florida, at 2 p.m. (1800 GMT) and was expected to stay just off
shore. 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 said.

"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.

In New Orleans, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said
President George W. Bush, on his fifth visit to the region,
signed an emergency declaration for Florida because of the
threat posed by Hurricane Rita, at the request of Gov. Jeb
Bush. The declaration makes federal assistance available for
people and businesses needing it.

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 with 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
(236 million liters) 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 supply halt 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 and another 3,200 in the Keys.

Rita was 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 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 mostly
evacuated city.

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 Chaffee, 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,
Jane Sutton and Michael Christie in Miami and Marc Frank in