More than 1.3 million people living in the path of Hurricane Rita in Texas and Louisiana are under mandatory evacuation orders.
The result is bumper-to-bumper traffic for up to 160 kilometers as thousands of motorists flee the area. Texas governor Rick Perry has had to dispatch fuel trucks along the evacuation route as slow moving traffic has caused hundreds of motorists to run out of gas.
The governor says people started evacuating almost 48 hours before Rita is expected to hit land in the largest evacuation in Texas history -- prompted partly by the experience of those who did not flee Hurricane Katrina in time. "I think we all learn every time there is an event of any size, this is a big one,” said the governor. “And I hope we've learned well. Because we are going to be tested and tested severely."
Hurricane Rita has been downgraded to a Category 4 hurricane, but coming so soon after Hurricane Katrina, it has the potential to be one of the most devastating hurricanes ever to hit the U.S. In Washington Thursday, President George Bush said the government is ready to respond after the hurricane hits land, which could be late Friday or early Saturday morning. "This is a big storm. And it's really important for our citizens there on the Texas coast to follow the instructions of the local authorities,” President Bush said.
“Officials at every level of government are preparing for the worst. Our armed forces have pre-positioned troops. We have resources there to help the federal, state and local officials to respond swiftly and effectively."
President Bush said the federal government is still assessing the damage from Hurricane Katrina, which slammed into Louisiana on August 29th. The concern now is that Rita may hit Louisiana again.
Mr. Bush said if Rita does hit the state, people are better prepared for this disaster. "But I think the biggest difference is people are aware of the danger of these storms and people are responding at all levels of government." The president's comments referred to the slow response to Hurricane Katrina from federal and local governments.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, charged with responding to disasters, came under fire for its lack of response and failure to get federal help to Katrina victims quickly.
FEMA Director Michael Brown resigned as a result. David Paulison replaced Mr. Brown as Acting Director of FEMA. He says the agency is already getting supplies and personnel to the region for the initial response once Rita passes. Mr. Paulison told a news conference, "We're looking for 45 truck loads of water, 45 truckloads of ice and 25 truckloads of food. And we are well within our realm to get all of those on the ground and in place to make sure they're ready to distribute as soon as the storm clears landfall and the winds start dying down."
Hurricane hunters have flown into the eye of the hurricane to gather data about the storm. They say it could be the strongest storm on record, but the path Hurricane Rita is traveling, which is 9 kilometers an hour, remains unpredictable. Rita's winds have been clocked as high as 282 kilometers an hour.