Millions flee Hurricane Rita

Monstrous Hurricane Rita, one of the deadliest storms ever recorded, sent millions fleeing, threatened vital oil production and cast fear far and wide as it ripped across the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday whipping up winds of 275 kilometres an hour.

The capricious category five storm raised the spectre of murderous flood tides across a southern swathe of Texas and Louisiana, billion dollar damage bills and new political turmoil, with the United States already punch drunk from a devastating hurricane season.

New Orleans, reduced to ruins just three-and-a-half weeks ago by Hurricane Katrina, quivered at the prospect of more misery, as experts warned even glancing rains from Rita could overwhelm busted levees and send more floods gushing into the city.

The United States National Hurricane Center warned Rita could have a “potentially catastrophic” impact, even if it weakens slightly before slamming into land, late on Friday or early on Saturday.

At 12 noon GMT, the hurricane was about 790km southeast of Galveston, Texas under a mandatory evacuation order, issued by officials, desperate to learn lessons of the Katrina disaster.

Rita is “a potentially catastrophic category five hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale,” the Miami based hurricane centre said.

“A slow weakening trend is expected but Rita is expected to reach the coast late Friday or early Saturday as a major hurricane.”

The centre said there could be up to 38cm of rainfall when the storm, brewing new menace in the warm waters of the Gulf, hits the coast.

Tides were already about 30cm above normal along the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts in areas affected by Katrina.

Forecasters predicted some flooding with tides up to 120cm over normal levels.

President George Bush, yet to shrug off the storm of criticism over his role in the debacle at all levels of government sparked by Katrina, declared states of emergency in Texas and Louisiana.

“Mandatory evacuations have been ordered for New Orleans and Galveston. I urge the citizens to listen carefully to the instructions provided by state and local authorities. And follow them,” Bush said.

Some storm models showed that Galveston, a coastal city of 60 000 people, could be almost entirely swallowed in the flood surge.

The barrier island city was the site of one of the most disastrous hurricanes in US history in 1900, which killed between 8 000 and 12 000 people.

US authorities, under fire for their sluggish response to Katrina, also ordered parts of Houston and Corpus Christi to be emptied.
An estimated one million people were fleeing Rita’s approaching wrath.

Bumper-to-bumper traffic choked the main highway out of Galveston. Ambulances, sirens blaring, rushed out patients from hospitals, families packed their belongings in cars and school buses ferried those lacking their own means of transport.

Federal authorities put trucks carrying water, ice, food and medicine on standby in Texas. Emergency workers and medical teams were also alerted. Texas mobilised 5 000 National Guard troops.

Alarm was also mounting in the oil industry, already beset by surging prices and disabled production by Katrina.

About one-quarter of US oil operations are based in the Gulf of Mexico area. BP, Shell and other oil companies evacuated more than 600 oil platforms and rigs.

US authorities said more than 70% of oil production in the Gulf has been shut down. Nerves over the new threat to world supplies pushed up crude prices. New York’s main contract, light sweet crude for delivery in November, rose 60 cents to close at $66,80 per barrel.

The few people left in New Orleans, Louisiana, rendered a ghost town by Katrina on August 29—a category four storm—were also told to get out.

The Katrina death toll swept past 1 000 on Wednesday, and many of those who fled at the time are among those having to evacuate again.

Katrina forced Alicia Baxter and her family into the Superdome stadium in New Orleans, then the Astrodome in Houston, and they had arrived last week in Galveston.

“I’m about to go kill myself,” Baxter said as relatives packed up behind her. “This is unbelievable.”

Tens of thousands of people in emergency shelters in Houston and western Louisiana were also told to leave again.

“Hurricane Rita on its present course poses a risk to Houston and the whole Houston region,” said Mayor Bill White, said as he told residents to flee flood-prone areas of the city of two million.

Houston’s port and Nasa’s Johnson Space Centre also closed down. Nasa handed control of the International Space Station to counterparts in the Russian Federation. Texas Governor Rick Perry also urged coastal residents to head to safer ground.

The storm entered the Gulf of Mexico after brushing past Cuba and the Florida Keys on Tuesday as a category two hurricane, drenching Havana and cutting power to more than 24 000 south Florida homes, but leaving no reported casualties. - AFP

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