Hurricane Rita strengthened into a Category 4 storm packing 135-mph winds as it churned into the Gulf of Mexico early today.
Forecasters warned the storm could hit Louisiana and Texas, which could spark an order for mandatory evacuations in New Orleans and Galveston, Texas.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff urged residents to heed calls for evacuation today.
“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.”
David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said 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 and spoke with Texas Governor Rick Perry about planning for the storm’s landfall.
Perry said Texans were taking the warnings seriously.
“I think Texas is prepared as any state in the nation,” he told NBC’s Today.
Some 130,000 people were evacuated in Cuba, on the southern side of the Florida Straits. The storm churned up roiling waves and soaked the northern coast as it made its way past Havana.
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.
Rita created relatively few problems along the Florida Keys, where thousands of relieved residents who evacuated are expected to begin returning in earnest today.