With sustained winds of 175 mph, Hurricane Rita has been upped to a deadly Category 5 storm, leading to the mandatory evacuation of more than 1 million Texas residents. The storm, which was 500 miles off the coast of Texas as of Thursday, is expected to make landfall between Galveston and Corpus Christi, Texas, early Saturday.
As it quickly grew from a Category 3 to a 5 on Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center announced that Rita is now the third most intense hurricane on record in the Atlantic, ranking it among only three other recorded Category 5 hurricanes to hit the continental U.S.
"At this point, Rita has become a potentially very devastating Category 5 hurricane," said Chris Landsea, a National Hurricane Center meteorologist, according to a Los Angeles Times report. "Fortunately it's over the open ocean of the Gulf of Mexico, and will be over the open ocean for the next day. But we expect it to gradually make a turn to the north."
Officials predict the storm could gain even more strength as it churns over the warm waters of the Gulf and potentially cause more damage than Hurricane Katrina, the Category 4 storm that hit the Gulf Coast on August 29 and caused massive flooding that has so far claimed more than 1,000 lives (see "Bush Unveils Ambitious Plan To Help New Orleans 'Rise Again' ").
If the storm, which began forming shortly after Katrina hit, maintains its Category 5 status, it is expected to destroy buildings, spawn storm surges that could erase miles of beaches and cause flooding miles inland. Forecasters, however, are predicting that the cooler waters the storm is expected to move over on Thursday and Friday could potentially weaken it to a still-deadly Category 4 before it makes landfall with winds 120-130 mph.
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Fearing a repeat of the botched evacuation plan for Katrina, officials in the storm's path — which includes much of the Texas Gulf Coast and stretches up to New Orleans — have ordered a mandatory evacuation of 1.3 of the region's 5.2 million residents. All day Wednesday and into Thursday morning, northbound highways leaving Galveston were jammed with miles-long rows of cars filled with residents seeking higher ground, and officials used ambulances, buses and helicopters to empty area nursing homes of frail and sickly patients.
Late Wednesday, the 277,000 residents of Corpus Christi were ordered to evacuate, joining the 60,000 fleeing from Galveston, where the central business district, the Strand, was practically a ghost town of buildings with plywood-covered windows.
"Coastal Texans should not wait until late Thursday or early Friday to leave," Governor Rick Perry said. "Homes and businesses can be rebuilt. Lives cannot."
The storm is especially troubling for the residents of the Texas coast, as it evokes memories of an unnamed hurricane that hit Galveston in September 1900 and killed between 8,000 and 12,000 people, making it the deadliest storm in U.S. history.
President Bush, who belatedly took the blame for the slow federal response to Katrina, has already declared federal emergencies in Texas and Louisiana, where thousands of National Guard troops and 13,000 active-duty troops began moving out of the storm's way to staging areas as they wait to move into the new disaster zones. According to The New York Times, 10 Navy ships have moved to the northeastern part of the Gulf to wait out the storm, but will be ready to quickly return to help with relief efforts after it passes. Twenty helicopters at Fort Hood, Texas, have also been put on standby in case they are needed for search-and-rescue operations or medical transport.
"We hope and pray that Hurricane Rita will not be a devastating storm, but we've got to be ready for the worst," Bush said Wednesday.
Even as they declared most of the city dry again, on Wednesday the Army Corps of Engineers crews laid heavy steel barriers over two levees in New Orleans that were breached three weeks ago by the storm surge from Lake Pontchartrain that flooded 80 percent of the city.
Well before it hits, Rita has already caused the postponement of several concerts in Texas this weekend, including a Mötley Crüe show slated for Saturday at the Toyota Center in Houston, as well as shows by Coldplay on Saturday and Oasis on Sunday at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in the Woodlands. Organizers of this weekend's Austin City Limits Festival are going ahead with the three-day event featuring Coldplay, Oasis, Wilco, Death Cab for Cutie, Franz Ferdinand and dozens of others, though the festival's Web site said that they are keeping an eye on the weather and will shut down the show if it threatens the safety of patrons and artists.
To find out what you can do to help provide relief to victims of Katrina, head to think MTV's hurricane relief page.