Hurricane Rita has now turned into a Category-5, 266km/h monster that could slam Texas by the weekend and inflict more misery on New Orleans.
Forecasters said Rita could be the most intense hurricane on record ever to hit Texas, and easily one of the most powerful ever to plow into the US mainland. Category 5 is the highest on the scale, and only three Category 5 hurricanes are known to have hit the US mainland - most recently, Andrew, which smashed south Florida in 1992.
All of Galveston, low-lying sections of Houston and Corpus Christi, and a mostly emptied-out New Orleans were under mandatory evacuation orders, one day after Rita sideswiped the Florida Keys as a far weaker storm and caused minor damage.
Having seen what Hurricane Katrina - a Category-4, 233km/h storm - did three weeks ago, many people were taking no chances as Rita swirled across the Gulf of Mexico.
“After this killer in New Orleans, Katrina, I just cannot fathom staying,” 59-year-old Ldyyan Jean Jocque said before sunrise as she waited for an evacuation bus outside the Galveston Community Centre. She had packed her Bible, some music and clothes into plastic bags and loaded her dog into a pet carrier.
“I really think it is going to be bad. That’s really why I’m running. All these years I’ve stayed here, but I’ve got to go this time,” said 65-year-old Barbara Anders.
The federal government was eager to show it, too, had learned its lesson after being criticised for its sluggish response to Katrina. It rushed hundreds of truckloads of water, ice and ready-made meals to the Gulf Coast and put rescue and medical teams on standby.
“You can’t play around with this storm,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said on ABC’s Good Morning America. “The lesson is that when the storm hits, the best place to be is to be out of the path of the storm.”
Mr Bush says residents of the Gulf Coast need to take Hurricane Rita seriously.
By early afternoon, Rita was centred more than 1127km southeast of Corpus Christi, drawing strength from the warm waters of the gulf. Forecasters predicted it would come ashore Saturday along the central Texas coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi. But even a slight rightward turn could prove devastating to New Orleans.
The death toll from Katrina climbed past 1,000 yesterday to 1,036. The body count in Louisiana alone was put at 799 by the state Health Department.
In New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers raced to patch the city’s fractured levee system for fear the additional rain from Rita could swamp the walls and flood the city all over again.
The corps said New Orleans’ levees can only handle up to 15 centimetres of rain. “The protection is very tenuous at best,” said Dave Wurtzel, a corps official handling repairs.