September 21, 2005

Rita strengthens, aims at Texas

By Jeff Franks

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Hurricane Rita took aim at Texas as it
grew into a powerful Category 4 storm on Wednesday and
authorities urged residents in Galveston, Houston and other
vulnerable areas to leave.

"This is a big storm and it's going to have an impact along
the entire coast," U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael
Chertoff told Fox News during a round of morning television

Rita's winds increased to 140 mph (225 kph) as it headed
into the Gulf of Mexico after lashing the Florida Keys on
Tuesday. The storm 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.

It could reach the maximum Category 5 in the central Gulf
then weaken slightly as it moved west. It was expected to make
landfall "as a major hurricane ... at least Category 3," the
National Hurricane Center said.

The intensified storm 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.

Rita's most likely future track would take it to the Texas
coast by the end of the week, hitting shore southwest of
Galveston, where in 1900 at least 8,000 people died in the
deadliest U.S. hurricane.

Galveston began evacuating residents on Tuesday, and
further inland, Houston Mayor Bill White told residents in
areas prone to storm surges or major floods to prepare to

"Hurricane Rita on its present course poses a risk to
Houston and the whole Houston region," White said.

Taking lessons from the problem-plagued response to
Katrina, Chertoff said authorities had positioned supplies,
begun making preparations for the early evacuation of people in
nursing homes and hospitals and were checking on communications
systems. He said the federal government had sent a Coast Guard
admiral to Texas to coordinate the response.

"I hope that by doing what the state officials and mayors
are doing now, are getting people who are invalids out of the
way, encouraging people to leave early, that when the storm
hits, there will be property damage but hopefully there won't
be a lot of people to rescue," Chertoff told MSNBC.

White urged people with their own transportation to use it
because there were not enough government vehicles to get
everyone out of vulnerable Houston areas.


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."

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 755 miles east-southeast (1,215
kph) of Corpus Christi, Texas, at 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT). The
hurricane was headed west into the southeastern Gulf of Mexico
at about 13 mph (21 kph), the hurricane center said.

The center said Rita had become 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 $1.45 per barrel to $67.65. The
dollar 0.85 percent against the euro, and some analysts cited
concerns that damage caused by the hurricanes could prompt the
Federal Reserve to scale back plans to raise interest rates.

U.S. stock prices also fell, partly in response to the
crude oil prices. The chief executive of major refiner Valero
Energy Crop said retail gasoline prices could again rise past
$3 per gallon.

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

(Additional reporting by Michael Peltier in Tallahassee,
Jane Sutton and Michael Christie in Miami)