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CORRECTED: Hurricane Rita develops into Category 3 storm

September 21, 2005

(Corrects category of storm in headline)

By Jim Loney

MIAMI (Reuters) – After lashing the Florida Keys, Hurricane
Rita gained power on Wednesday and headed across the Gulf of
Mexico on a course that could take it to Texas and dump more
rain on Katrina-battered Louisiana.

Rita was upgraded to a Category 3 storm and the National
Hurricane Center said it probably would develop into a Category
4 on Wednesday, the same classification as Hurricane Katrina,
which devastated parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama
last month.

Rita had sustained winds of 115-mph (185-kph) winds on
Wednesday as it headed into the Gulf. The storm hit the Florida
Keys but did not get close enough to reach the vulnerable chain
of islands with its most destructive forces.

Rita’s most likely future track would take it to Texas by
the end of the week, 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.

With Rita looming, 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.”

With grim news footage of Katrina’s assault still fresh in
their minds, officials along the Texas Gulf Coast prepared for
Rita. An evacuation was ordered for Galveston and several
schools in the region planned to cancel classes.

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.

CONDITIONS SIMILAR TO KATRINA

Rita’s center was about 145 miles west of Key West,
Florida, at 2 a.m. EDT (0600 GMT). The hurricane was headed
west into the southeastern Gulf of Mexico at about 14 mph (22
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.

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.

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
Katrina.

Residents of the Florida Keys were grateful that Rita
merely skirted their area.

“We did not have the flooding I thought we’d have,” Key
West Mayor Jimmy Weekley told reporters. “We were extremely
lucky.”

All 80,000 residents had been ordered out of the 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.

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

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

(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)




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