September 21, 2005

Rita now Category 4 hurricane

By Jim Loney

MIAMI (Reuters) - After lashing the Florida Keys, Hurricane
Rita was upgraded on Wednesday into a more powerful Category 4
storm as it headed across the Gulf of Mexico on a course that
could take it to Texas and dump more rain on Katrina-battered

Rita's winds increased to 135 mph (193-kph) winds 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.

The upgrade put Rita in the same strength classification as
Hurricane Katrina, which devastated parts of Louisiana,
Mississippi and Alabama last month, and it sparked concern in
financial markets that the new storm could wreak as much damage
as Katrina's assault on the U.S. Gulf Coast last month.

U.S. crude-oil prices rose and the dollar weakened against
the euro. U.S. stock futures also pointed to a lower market

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.


Rita's center was about 195 miles west of Key West,
Florida, at 8 a.m. EDT. 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 became a Category 4
hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale -- with sustained winds
above 135 mph (217 kph) on Wednesday morning.

"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.

U.S. light crude oil rose $1.80 per barrel to $68, its
highest level in three weeks. The dollar lost 1 percent against
the euro and Swiss franc, and some analysts cited concerns that
damage caused by the hurricanes could prompt the Federal
Reserve to scale back plans to raise interest rates.

President George W. Bush was briefed on Tuesday 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.

Bush, who was criticized as being caught off guard by the
severity of Katrina, said he had sent an admiral to Texas to
coordinate any needed response to Rita.

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

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)