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Rapidly Strengthening Hurricane Rita Threatens Gulf

People living along the western coast of the Gulf of Mexico are being urged to evacuate because of the approaching hurricane Rita. 

Rita was still a tropical storm as it passed just south of Key West, Florida, the southernmost city in the continental United States, on Tuesday.  About 100 homes in the Florida Keys suffered minor flooding.  Twenty-four hours later, forecasters say Rita has become an extremely dangerous hurricane.

The National Hurricane Center says the environment favors further strengthening.  That means Rita could make landfall with the same intensity as hurricane Katrina, which devastated portions of the Gulf Coast last month and left at least 1,000 people dead.

In Austin, Texas Governor Rick Perry told as many as one million coastal residents that they should move inland before Rita arrives on Friday or Saturday.

"It is quite likely that it will be a devastating storm when it reaches Texas," said Governor. Perry.  "That is why I am encouraging coastal residents from Corpus Christi to the Beaumont-Port Arthur area to voluntarily evacuate if they have the means."

The evacuation was voluntary for most residents, but mandatory in Galveston, Texas, a city on a narrow barrier island where an unnamed hurricane made landfall in the year 1900, killing 8,000 people.

In New Orleans, plans to reopen the city have been put on hold.  Repairs are being made to the levee system that prevents Lake Pontchartrain from flooding the city.  But Walter Maestri, the director of emergency management for Jefferson Parish, is still concerned about rainfall and a possible storm surge.

"We are asking everybody to remember that we are in a vulnerable position.  We are not at our strongest posture right now," he said.  "We all know what we went through three weeks ago, and so we have got to be extra cautious and take extra precautions."

President Bush urged people in the region to be "ready for the worst."  Meanwhile, a fundraising effort organized by former Presidents Bush and Clinton has generated more than $96 million in donations.

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