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Hurricane Rita Lashes East Texas with Heavy Rain, Wind

Hurricane Rita's eye made landfall in western Louisiana, not far from the Texas border, with 190 kilometer per hour winds and heavy rain at 2:30 a.m. local time. The storm was not as devastating as some had feared, but it is far from over.

Rita came ashore as a massive storm system, lashing the coasts of Louisiana and Texas with wind and rain stretching hundreds of kilometers out from its center.

The hurricane weakened as it approached shore, dropping from a Category 5 storm, the strongest, to a Category 3 storm, according to the National Hurricane Center, based in Miami. Rita has now been downgraded to a category 2 storm.

The hurricane brought down trees and power lines, and caused fires in the island-city of Galveston, around 70 kilometers south of Houston.

The area that felt the main impact was along the coast from Lake Charles, Louisiana to Beaumont, Texas.

Many areas close to shore are flooded, and there is fear that dozens of oil refineries in the region may have been damaged by the storm. The refineries here in the Gulf account for 28 percent of total U.S. refining capacity, and a lengthy shutdown could result in higher gasoline prices across the nation.

The human toll of Hurricane Rita was minimized by the evacuation of more than 2.5 million people from the low-lying areas of the Texas coast.

Experts are calling it the largest evacuation in U.S. history. Highways were clogged for close to 48 hours, but the evacuation effort succeeded in removing people from the most vulnerable areas.

There was relief in Houston, as the storm shifted eastward. Harris County Judge Robert Eckles, who is working closely with city officials on relief matters, says it could have been far worse.

"For a storm that just 24 hours ago was supposed to be the largest storm in the history of the Gulf, and actually was the largest, maybe, in the history of the Gulf of Mexico, we have come out reasonably well," he said.

Houston, the fourth-largest U.S. city, has felt like a ghost town since Thursday, with all but a few businesses closed down, as well as hundreds of corporate offices. Houston is home to some of the largest oil and oil services companies with operations worldwide.

The threat of Rita also forced a shutdown at the Johnson Space Center, which is located close to Galveston Bay, and vulnerable to storm surges.

Although Houston escaped the worst of the storm, high winds have caused power outages in parts of the city, leaving half a million people in the dark.

The biggest concern for state and federal officials monitoring the storm now is flooding in the low-lying cities of Beaumont and Port Arthur, which are close to where Rita made landfall. Both cities have areas that are just slightly above, or in some areas, below sea level, and reports from the area indicate widespread flooding.

The other concern is that, if the storm stalls over land for a day or two, it will continue to pour water over a wide area already saturated from rain, putting further pressure on dikes, canals and levees designed to minimize floods in the region.