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Rita unleashes Category 5 fury over U.S. Gulf
Updated: 2005-09-22 07:17

Authorities in the Mexican states along the gulf also set up shelters and stocked food distribution centers in case Rita veered off its expected course.

Rita approached as the death toll from Katrina passed the 1,000 mark — to 1,036 — in five Gulf Coast states. The body count in Louisiana alone was put at 799, most found in the receding floodwaters of New Orleans.

The Army Corps of Engineers raced to fortify the city's patched-up levees for fear the additional rain could swamp the walls and flood the city all over again. The Corps said New Orleans' levees can only handle up to 6 inches of rain and a storm surge of 10 to 12 feet.

Uprooted trees and half-fallen power cables block a street in Havana after Hurricane Rita passed near Cuba September 21, 2005.
Uprooted trees and half-fallen power cables block a street in Havana after Hurricane Rita passed near Cuba September 21, 2005.[Reuters]
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin estimated only 400 to 500 people remained in the vulnerable east bank areas of the city. They, too, were ordered to evacuate. But only a few people lined up for the evacuation buses provided. Most of the people still in the city were believed to have their own cars.

"I don't think I can stay for another storm," said Keith Price, a nurse at New Orleans' University Hospital who stayed through Katrina and had to wade to safety through chest-deep water. "Until you are actually in that water, you really don't know how frightening it is."

Rita also forced some Katrina refugees to flee a hurricane for the second time in 3 1/2 weeks. More than 1,000 refugees who had been living in the civic center in Lake Charles, near the Texas state line, were being bused to shelters farther north.

"We all have to go along with the system right now, until things get better," said Ralph Russell of the New Orleans suburb of Harvey. "I just hope it's a once in a lifetime thing."

Crude oil prices rose again on fears that Rita would smash into key oil installations in Texas and the gulf. Hundreds of workers were evacuated from offshore oil rigs. Texas, the heart of U.S. crude production, accounts for 25 percent of the nation's total oil output.

As Rita swirled away from Florida, thousands of residents who evacuated the Keys began returning to find that the storm had caused little more than minor flooding. Crews worked to restore electricity, store owners pulled the plywood off windows on the main drag, Duval Street, and seaweed and sand were cleared from the streets.

"I'm turning on the A/C and putting a vacancy sign up. We're really lucky," said Mona Santiago, owner of the Southernmost Point Guest House, as she swept water off the front porch. "The sun is coming out. We're getting ready for business."

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. The hurricane season is not over until Nov. 30.

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