Hurricane Rita strengthened into a Category 3 storm with 115 mph winds early today after lashing the Florida Keys and sparking anxiety as it headed into the Gulf of Mexico.
Forecasters feared Rita could further intensify in the Gulf and the storm’s most likely destination by the weekend was Texas, although Louisiana and northern Mexico were possibilities.
On the far side of the Gulf of Mexico in Texas, Galveston started evacuations and officials made plans to move refugees from Hurricane Katrina who had been housed in the Houston area to Arkansas.
Acting FEMA director David Paulison told reporters the agency had 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 and Florida.
“I strongly urge Gulf coast residents to pay attention to the storm,” he said.
Stung by criticism of the government’s slow initial response to Hurricane Katrina, President George Bush signed an emergency declaration for Florida even though it appeared Rita had largely spared the Keys.
“All up and down the coastline people are now preparing for what is anticipated to be another significant storm,” Bush said.
Florida Governor Jeb Bush said more than 2,000 Florida National Guard troops and dozens of law enforcement officers were ready to deal with the storm’s aftermath.
“I think we did, so far, dodge a bullet,” said Key West Mayor Jimmy Weekley.
Rita started the day as a tropical storm with top sustained wind of 70 mph. But as it cruised through the Florida Straits between the Keys and Cuba, it gathered energy from the warm sea.
Bush received a briefing about Rita aboard the USS Iwo Jima, which is docked near downtown New Orleans, as the hurricane caused new anxiety among Katrina victims in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.
“There’s still plenty of warm water that it needs to move over in the next couple days. The forecast is favourable for further intensification,” said Michelle Mainelli, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Centre in Miami.
Residents and visitors had been ordered out of the Keys, and voluntary evacuation orders were posted for coastal mainland areas including Miami Beach.
Some 130,000 people were evacuated in Cuba, on the southern side of the Florida Straits.
The storm churned up waves and soaked the northern coast as it made its way past Havana in the late afternoon.
Electricity, gas and water services were interrupted in neighbourhoods around the capital of two million and some streets were flooded. Havana’s international airport was closed to incoming and outgoing flights.
Many of Key West’s shops and bars were boarded up.
“This city was really very well prepared,” said Jim Gilleran, owner of the 801 Bar in the Old Town section of Key West. He kept his business open despite the heavy rain and a power cut.
At least one segment of the Keys highway, US 1, was barricaded because of water and debris, the Florida Highway Patrol said. Wind-driven water was flowing across other sections of the two and three-lane highway that connects the Keys.
At 2am (7am Irish Time), Rita’s eye was about 145 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.
Nearly 900 miles from Key West, officials of Galveston were already calling for voluntary evacuations, with mandatory evacuations to begin today. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco urged everyone in the south-west part of the state to prepare to evacuate.
Even those who had survived major hurrianes were getting ready to leave. Catherine Womack, 71, was busy boarding up the windows on her one-storey brick house in Galveston.
“Destination unknown,” she said. “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.”
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin suspended his plan to start bringing residents back to the city after warnings that Rita could follow Hurricane Katrina’s course and rupture his city’s weakened levees.
The Pentagon stationed co-ordinating officers and staff at Tallahassee, Florida, and Austin, Texas, to assist storm preparations and recovery.
The USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship, was off Florida’s Atlantic coast near Jacksonville, preparing to follow behind Rita to support relief efforts.