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Rita, now category 4, heads for Gulf Coast
Updated: 2005-09-21 21:43

Rita intensified into a Category 4 hurricane Wednesday with wind of 135 mph, deepening concerns that the storm could devastate coastal Texas and already-battered Louisiana by week's end.

A ocean wave crashes over a sightseer in Key West, Fla. Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2005, as Hurricane Rita brushes past the area. [AP]

Mandatory evacuations already have been ordered for New Orleans and Galveston, Texas, one day after Rita skirted the Florida Keys as a Category 2 storm, causing minimal damage.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff urged residents to heed calls for evacuation Wednesday.

"The lesson is that when the storm hits, the best place to be is to be out of the path of the storm," he told ABC's "Good Morning America." "There's plenty of (advance) notice about Rita."

The storm is expected to remain a Category 4 storm until it makes landfall, meteorologist Chris Landsea of the National Hurricane Center in Miami said. That's now predicted for Saturday somewhere between northern Mexico and western Louisiana, most likely in Texas.

"But our ability to forecast wind speed is limited," Landsea said. He said the storm could strengthen to Category 5 with wind in excess of 155 mph or ease to Category 3, with wind less than 130 mph.

Acting Federal Emergency Management Agency Director R. David Paulison said the agency has aircraft and buses available to evacuate residents of areas the hurricane might hit. Rescue teams and truckloads of ice, water and prepared meals were being sent to Texas.

"I strongly urge Gulf Coast residents to pay attention," he said.

Stung by criticism of the government's slow initial response to Hurricane Katrina, President Bush signed an emergency declaration for Florida and spoke with Texas Gov. Rick Perry about planning for the storm's landfall.

"Up and down the coastline, people are now preparing for what is anticipated to be another significant storm," Bush said.

Perry said Texans are taking the warnings seriously.

"I think Texas is as prepared as any state in the nation," he told NBC's "Today" show Wednesday.

Rita created relatively few problems along Florida's Keys, where thousands of relieved residents who evacuated were expected to begin returning in earnest on Wednesday.

During daytime hours, several stretches of the Keys' highway, U.S. 1, were barricaded because of water and debris; by nightfall, only one small problem area remained and the entire highway was passable, the Florida Highway Patrol said.

There were reports of localized flooding, and some sections of the Lower Keys remained without power early Wednesday. But the storm's eye did not hit land.

"It was fairly nothing," said Gary Wood, who owns a bar in Marathon, about 45 miles northeast of Key West. "It came through and had a good stiff wind, but that was about it."

In Key Colony Beach, an oceanfront island off Marathon, Mayor Clyde Burnett said a restaurant and hotel were damaged by water and wind, but widespread problems simply didn't arrive as expected.

Visitors ordered out of the Keys will be invited back Friday, and virtually all other voluntary evacuation advisories in South Florida were lifted after Rita roared past.

Now, all eyes following Rita are turning toward the Gulf of Mexico — where the hurricane is causing new anxiety among Katrina victims in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama and concern around the world about possible damage to oil producing facilities.

At 8 a.m. EDT, Rita's eye was about 195 miles west of Key West. The storm was moving west at 14 mph — a track that kept the most destructive winds at sea and away from Key West. Maximum sustained wind increased to near 135 mph.

"There's still plenty of warm water that it needs to move over in the next couple days. The forecast is favorable for further intensification," Michelle Mainelli, a hurricane center meteorologist, said earlier.

Those were words that Gulf Coast residents certainly did not want to hear. Even those who had survived major hurricanes were getting ready to leave, not wanting to challenge Rita's potential wrath or cling to hope that they'd be spared in the same manner the Keys were.

"Destination unknown," said Catherine Womack, 71, who was boarding up the windows on her one-story brick house in Galveston. "I've never left before. I think because of Katrina, there is a lot of anxiety and concern. It's better to be safe than sorry."

About 80 buses were set to leave the city Wednesday for shelters 100 miles north in Huntsville. The buses were part of a mandatory evacuation ordered by officials in Galveston County, which has a population of nearly 267,000.

"We've always asked people to leave earlier, but because of Katrina, they are now listening to us and they're leaving as we say," said Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas.

Rita is the 17th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, making this the fourth-busiest season since record-keeping started in 1851. The record is 21 tropical storms in 1933. And with Rita, seven hurricanes have hit or passed near Florida in the last 13 1/2 months.

The hurricane season isn't over until Nov. 30.

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