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Hurricane Rita Hits Florida, Threatens Battered Gulf Coast

Hurricane Rita slammed into the southern tip of Florida Tuesday morning, causing flooding in the Florida Keys as it moved toward the Gulf of Mexico. The storm is expected to strengthen as it moves through the Gulf toward Southern Texas.

Rita, the ninth hurricane of the season and the third to hit Florida this year, moved through the Florida Straits between Key West, Florida, and Havana, Cuba, on Tuesday. Cuba's National Information Agency reported 58,000 people were evacuated from low-lying areas on the northern part of the island nation. Flooding and debris closed portions of the two-lane road that connects the Florida Keys, a string of islands on Florida's tip.

Florida Governor Jeb Bush said he was ready to send National Guard troops and supplies into the Keys, if necessary.

"We already have 114 trucks of ice and 229 trucks of water ready to go and currently convoys of 50 trucks of water and 50 trucks of ice are heading to the staging areas, in this case that would be the Palm Beach fairgrounds," said Governor Bush. "2,400 Guardsmen are mobilized. An additional 2,000 are on alert," he said.

On Tuesday, Hurricane Rita was on a path similar to that of last month's Hurricane Katrina, which caused 11 deaths in south Florida before it laid waste to the Gulf Coast, including New Orleans, killing more than 700 people and causing an estimated $200 billion in damage.

Forecaster Richard Knabb at the National Hurricane Center in Miami said Rita was moving to the west and would strengthen over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

"We expect that will continue for the next couple of days," said Knabb. "There's a fairly strong ridge to the north and northwest of this hurricane which should drive it continuing toward the west over the next couple of days. Later in the period, when we get to three and four days from now that westward motion becomes a little more in question and it could turn more to the north. And so that's why anywhere from Louisiana through Texas could end up receiving the brunt of this hurricane, which could be stronger, could be a major hurricane by the time it gets to the western Gulf," he said.

In anticipation of Rita, Texas Governor Rick Perry has recalled all emergency personnel who were helping with the recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Officials in Galveston, Texas, were calling for a voluntary evacuation of that island city. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who suspended his plan Monday to start bringing residents back to the city, warned Tuesday that because of its weakened levy system, a storm surge from Hurricane Rita could start new flooding.