Hurricane Rita strengthened to a dangerous Category 3 storm early today, sparing the Florida Keys but prompting mandatory orders to once again evacuate New Orleans as well as the Texas city of Galveston.
Weather forecasters predicted the storm could intensify further with winds of up to 115 mph battering Louisiana and Texas by the weekend.
Federal officials told Gulf Coast residents to begin bracing for a blockbuster storm. “Up and down the coastline, people are now preparing for what is anticipated to be another significant storm,” President George Bush said.
Acting Federal Emergency Management Agency 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.
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 all flights.
Stung by criticism of the government’s slow initial response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush signed an emergency declaration for Florida and spoke with Texas Governor Rick Perry about planning for the storm’s landfall.
Rita created relatively few problems along the Florida Keys, where thousands of relieved residents who evacuated are expected to begin returning in earnest today.
During daytime hours, several stretches of the Keys highway, US 1, were blocked by 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 localised flooding, and some sections of the Lower Keys were still without power early today. But the worst of the storm did not hit land.
“It was fairly nothing,” said Gary Wood, who owns a bar in Marathon, about 45 miles north-east 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 did not arrive as expected.
Visitors ordered out of the Keys will be invited back on Friday, and virtually all other voluntary evacuation orders in South Florida were lifted after Rita roared past.
Now, all eyes following Rita are turning toward the Gulf – where the hurricane is causing new anxiety among victims of last month’s Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.
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.
“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.
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.
“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 today bound 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.
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.
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. Six hurricanes have hit Florida in the past 13 months.
The hurricane season is not over until November 30.