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Officials Urge Hurricane Rita Evacuees to Stay Away from Affected Region

Hurricane Rita is now centered in southeast Texas, greatly reduced in power, but still dangerous. Local officials are urging evacuees from the storm-affected region to remain where they are for the moment.

As dawn broke over eastern Texas and the winds of Hurricane Rita began to die down in most areas, hundreds of people took to the roads. Most are people who evacuated from the Gulf Coast towns of Galveston and Beaumont, as well as lower areas in Houston only a couple of days ago, and are anxious to return.

But local officials say it is too early to return, and that the situation remains dangerous, partly because the storm, while weakening, is still bringing rain and wind gusts to many areas.

Houston Mayor Bill White warns people trying to return that rain water is running off saturated land, and filling the bayous, which could overflow and flood some low areas. "There is water rising in the bayous. There is no certainty that you will be able to get gasoline on the way back, and it is dangerous for people to stall out on the way back. But most important, people need to hold back, so that the emergency supply providers can get in on the major thoroughfares and highways to the area where that help is most needed," he said.

Mayor White says, at least one emergency convoy early Saturday was slowed by a traffic jam created by people trying to get back into the city. He also cautions that gasoline supplies are in short supply, partly because 16 refineries in this area have been shut down by the storm, and partly because of the disruption of normal delivery operations.

Farther south, in the island-city of Galveston, Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas urged her citizens to stay away, until officials have had a chance to inspect the storm damage and determine how safe it would be to return. "We have to go hour-by-hour to assess the damage, just as we assessed the strength of the storm as it was coming in. As we can, we can let our folks in, I guarantee you, but I am not going to say when that is, because I do not know yet. Remember, the storm just passed by here a few hours ago, so we are out all over the place trying to assess the damage," she said.

Overnight, as Rita's outer bands lashed the island, fires broke out in at least two places in Galveston resulting in the loss of a restaurant and an art gallery. About 75 percent of the city is without electrical power, but there appears to have been no severe structural damage to infrastructure.

The situation is more severe farther east, in Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas, close to where the eye of the hurricane passed. There are reports of extensive flooding, but officials say the damage to major refineries there may not be as bad as initially feared.

That would be good news not only for people in this area, but for motorists nationwide, since refineries here in the gulf region account for 28 percent of total U.S. refining capacity.