Hurricane Rita grows stronger

Storm-weary residents prepared to flee devastated New Orleans on Wednesday as powerful Hurricane Rita threatened the United States Gulf Coast three weeks after Katrina’s deadly passage.

Rita’s threat forced New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin to suspend plans to repopulate the city gradually. Instead, he warned residents who had returned that they may have to pack up and leave again.

US meteorologists upgraded Rita early on Wednesday to a powerful category-three category on the five-level hurricane-intensity scale, and warned that by the end of the day it could reach category-four status—just like Katrina.

The Miami, Florida-based National Hurricane Centre predicted that Rita, the fifth storm of the 2005 hurricane season, will make landfall in Texas over the weekend.

However, a “cone of probability” in the forecast indicates the storm might slam ashore anywhere between north-eastern Mexico and the swamplands of southern Louisiana, west of New Orleans.

And even if Rita follows the expected path, the eastern edge of the hurricane will likely brush New Orleans, which is ill prepared for more rain.

Nagin said that his city is ready for a full-scale evacuation order if Rita should suddenly take a northern turn.

“There are 500 buses staged and ready to go,” he said, adding that two busloads have already been moved out of the city.

“As long as that storm is still a significant threat in the Gulf of Mexico, we’re going to start to shut the city down,” Nagin said.

Based on the Rita threat, Nagin said officials “will start to strictly enforce the evacuation process” on Wednesday.

Governor Kathleen Blanco said south-western parts of Louisiana have been placed on an emergency footing.

Another storm hitting Louisiana will have unknown consequences, Blanco warned.

Bush visits again

The warnings came as President George Bush toured the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast for the fifth time in three weeks.

Bush lauded progress made in the Katrina relief effort and praised Nagin’s decision to halt the repopulation of New Orleans.

“He made a wise decision to say to people, be cautious about returning here, because rain of any amount could cause these levees to break again,” Bush said while visiting a coffee-roasting plant.

Some die-hard residents living in parts of New Orleans not flooded by Katrina continued to defy calls to leave the city.

“I am not leaving. I’ve fed the police and the military, I cooked 800 steaks for them,” said Finis Shelnutt, who lives in the French Quarter, which once buzzed with music and tourists but is now filled with patrolling troops.

Costly disaster

On August 29, Hurricane Katrina, rated category four, hit the coastlines of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, inflicting the costliest natural disaster in US history.

Nearly 1 000 bodies have been found so far and the death toll is expected to rise.

Officials are looking for additional shelter space in case Rita forces more evacuations, said Lieutenant Colonel Bill Doran, chief of operations for the state’s homeland security and emergency preparedness office.

“We’re encouraging citizens to plan ahead, [and] make provisions with friends and relatives out of the area as the evacuation shelter space may be at a premium,” Doran told reporters in the Louisiana capital, Baton Rouge.

Hundreds of thousands of people remained displaced by Katrina, whose economic cost has been put tentatively at $200-billion.

Agricultural losses alone are estimated at $900-million, said US Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.

The hurricane hit a range of production in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, including cotton, sugar cane and dairy.
About 10 000 cattle and millions of chickens died.

City, state and federal authorities have been criticised for fumbling their response to Katrina, but the disaster unleashed an outpouring of help from the US public.

A White House spokesperson said on Tuesday that Bush has picked a domestic policy adviser to lead an investigation of the federal government’s response to Katrina.—AFP

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