September 20, 2005

Hurricane Rita soaks Keys, heads to Gulf

By Jim Loney

MIAMI (Reuters) - Rapidly strengthening Hurricane Rita
lashed the low-lying islands of the Florida Keys on Tuesday as
the U.S. Gulf Coast began preparing for a possible encore to
devastating Hurricane Katrina.

New Orleans started evacuating as the National Hurricane
Center said Rita could become a Category 4 storm, the second
highest grade on the five-stage hurricane scale. Katrina was a
Category 4 when it roared ashore on August 29, swamping the
historic jazz city and crushing Mississippi coastal towns.

Rita grew from a tropical storm to a strong Category 2
hurricane with 110-mph (175-kph) winds on Tuesday as it
battered the fragile Florida Keys but its powerful core stayed
far enough offshore to spare the island chain its worst.

Rita's most likely future track would take it to Texas,
raising fears the sprawling storm could bring heavy rains to
flooded New Orleans and threaten the recovery of oil production
facilities in the Gulf of Mexico.

Louisiana declared a state of emergency and New Orleans, 80
percent of which was flooded when Katrina shattered its
protective levees, was taking no chances. Mayor Ray Nagin said
two busloads of people had been evacuated already and 500 other
buses were ready to roll.

"We're a lot smarter this time around," he said. "We've
learned a lot of hard lessons."

All 80,000 residents had been ordered out of the Florida
Keys island chain but many stayed behind in boarded-up homes.
Rita's winds pushed seawater, sand and seaweed onto the
Overseas Highway, the only road linking the islands to the
mainland and flooded some buildings.

The storm swamped streets and knocked out power in Key
West, the tourist playground at the western end of the island
chain. But officials said the city fared well.

"We did not have the flooding I thought we'd have," Key
West Mayor Jimmy Weekley told reporters. "We were extremely


Rita's center was about 95 miles west-southwest of Key
West, Florida, at 11 p.m. (0300 GMT). The hurricane was headed
west into the southeastern Gulf of Mexico at about 13 mph (21
kph), the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

The hurricane center said Rita was likely to become a
Category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale -- with
sustained winds above 130 mph (210 kph) -- by Wednesday night.

"The conditions over the central Gulf are much like they
were for Katrina," hurricane center deputy director Ed
Rappaport told CNN.

A major hurricane could send a 20-foot (6-meter) storm
surge over the Texas coast by Saturday.

President George W. Bush was briefed on the growing storm
aboard the helicopter assault landing ship Iwo Jima, which is
docked in New Orleans and has served as the military's Katrina
relief headquarters.

"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

Galveston, Texas, where a hurricane in September 1900
killed between 8,000 and 12,000 people, declared a state of
emergency and called for voluntary evacuations.

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

The Keys' hospitals and nursing homes were evacuated before
Rita hit and helicopters were on standby to carry in water,
food and other supplies. Some 2,400 Florida National Guard
troops were mobilized and another 2,000 were on alert.

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


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

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.

About 1,100 Hurricane Katrina evacuees still in Houston's
two mass shelters faced another evacuation as the city found
itself in Rita's possible path. 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 people stayed home, leaving
the capital's streets nearly deserted.

(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)