For the time being, Gulf Coast residents are able to breathe a small sigh of relief as news reports Friday morning (September 23) indicated that Hurricane Rita has gradually been losing strength, dropping from a category four to a category three hurricane with 125 mph winds as it nears the Texas and Louisiana coastlines.
Still, the rain Rita has brought was enough to breach two levees in New Orleans, resulting in renewed flooding in the already-devastated city, with waters reaching up to five feet and stretching across 40 city blocks, CNN reported.
"Our worst fears came true," Major Barry Guidry, a National Guardsman on duty at the broken levee in the Ninth Ward, told The Associated Press.
Officials in Texas also worry that the hurricane, which is expected to touch down by Saturday morning, may spawn tornadoes and bring heavy winds and rain that could cause significant damage before it even makes landfall.
President Bush scrapped plans earlier in the day to visit San Antonio so as not to hinder federal emergency relief efforts. Instead he headed to the U.S. Northern Command at Peterson Air Force Base, where he will spend the night before beginning his assessment on Saturday of federal, state and local authorities' preparation for Rita and its aftermath.
"We will make sure that my entourage does not get in the way of people doing their job," Bush said. "Rest assured, I understand that we must not and will not interfere with the important work that will be going forward."
As recently as Thursday, experts worried of the devastation Rita could cause as it reached category five status with winds of up to 175 mph (see "Hurricane Rita Could Cause More Damage Than Katrina").
Texas governor Rick Perry urged residents to evacuate areas along the Gulf, especially in the cities of Galveston, Houston and Beaumont, which were predicted to lie directly along the hurricane's path (see "Katrina Evacuees Forced Out Of Houston By Another Hurricane"). He told reporters Friday that about 2 million people had already vacated the area. On Thursday, hundreds of thousands of residents packed up what they could in their cars and attempted to leave, congesting highways and causing severe traffic jams that backed up for hundreds of miles.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which drew fire for its slow and inadequate response to Katrina, has already positioned rescue personnel and supplies in Texas and Louisiana, including 45 truckloads of water, 45 truckloads of ice and 25 truckloads of meals in the Lone Star state alone.
Four hundred medical team members have also been dispatched, along with nearly 800 workers from the Urban Search & Rescue Task Forces. Meanwhile, Coast Guard Disaster Area Response Teams will be stationed in Houston.
To find out what you can do to help provide relief to victims of Katrina, head to think MTV's hurricane relief page.