September 20, 2005

Rita strengthens and moves into US Gulf

By Jim Loney

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

Rita grew from a tropical storm to a Category 2 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 hurricane was headed west toward Texas, raising fears
it could bring more heavy rains to an already flooded New
Orleans and threaten recovery of oil production facilities.

All 80,000 residents had been ordered out of the Florida
Keys island chain, but many stayed behind in boarded-up homes.
The eye of the hurricane stayed offshore while its winds pushed
seawater up over the only highway linking the islands to the
Florida mainland and flooded some low-lying buildings.

"The storm is not living up to its potential right now and
that's a great thing," said Key West Police spokesman Steve
Torrence. "We're not seeing a lot of flooding, we're not seeing
a lot of damage, we're seeing a great inconvenience really."

Rita's center was about 50 miles south-southwest of Key
West, Florida, at 5 p.m. The hurricane was headed west into the
southeastern Gulf of Mexico at about 15 mph (24 kph), the U.S.
National Hurricane Center said.

The center's deputy director, Ed Rappaport, told President
George W. Bush in a videoconference that Rita was expected to
become a major hurricane with sustained winds of at least 111
mph (178 kph) and could send a 20-foot (6-meter) storm surge
over the Texas coast by Saturday. One computer model foresaw it
revving up into a monster Category 4 storm on the five-step
Saffir-Simpson scale with 131-mph (210-kph) plus winds.

The president received the briefing aboard the helicopter
assault landing ship Iwo Jima, which is docked in New Orleans
and has served as the military's Katrina relief headquarters.
It was Bush's fifth trip to areas mauled by Katrina.

"I've been in touch with the governor of Texas. I've been
briefed on the planning for what we pray is not a devastating
storm. But there's one coming," said Bush, who was criticized
as being caught off guard by the severity of Katrina.

The president also signed an emergency declaration making
federal assistance available to Florida, at the request of his
brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Military cargo planes evacuated the Keys' hospitals and
nursing homes before Rita hit and helicopters were on standby
to carry in water, food and other supplies, 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
of gasoline stored at Port Everglades, state officials said.
But that port was closed as Rita passed and the governor urged
Floridians to conserve fuel.

Gales also whipped the Miami area, home to 2.3 million
people. At least 24,000 homes and businesses were without power
in the Miami area and the Keys.

Rita was the seventh hurricane to hit Florida in 13 months.

Oil companies only starting to recover from Katrina
evacuated Gulf oil rigs as Rita moved toward major energy
production areas.

And the Navy began moving its remaining fleet of Katrina
relief vessels, including the Iwo Jima, away from the Gulf
Coast to ride out any potential battering from Rita.

Around 1,100 Hurricane Katrina evacuees still in Houston's
two mass shelters faced another evacuation as the city found
itself in the possible path of Rita. They were being sent to
Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.

Hurricane Rita also caused minor flooding in northwest
Cuba, where 60,000 people were evacuated from flood-prone
areas. Most of Havana's 2.2 million residents stayed home,
leaving the capital's streets nearly deserted, though some were
evacuated as rain and wind taxed buildings that local
authorities feared might collapse.

(Additional reporting by Michael Peltier in Tallahassee,
Jane Sutton and Michael Christie in Miami, Adam Entous in New
Orleans, Mark Babineck in Houston and Marc Frank in Havana)