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Hundreds of Thousands Leave US Gulf Coast Ahead of Powerful Hurricane Rita


A dangerous hurricane, with top winds of 230 kilometers per hour, is heading toward coastal areas of the U.S. Gulf Coast states of Texas and Louisiana. A massive evacuation is underway.

The National Hurricane Center predicts that Hurricane Rita, now in the Gulf of Mexico, will weaken slightly, but will still make landfall Friday night as a dangerous hurricane. More than 1.3 million residents of Texas and Louisiana have been ordered to evacuate, and massive traffic jams are occurring in many Texas cities.

About 9,000 people are being airlifted from Beaumont, Texas, to Houston as part of the evacuation along 600 kilometers of the Texas and Louisiana coast line. That area also includes the United States' largest concentration of oil refineries. Those plants are being shut down in advance of the storm, amidst concerns in the oil industry that major damage could cause serious disruptions in supplies of petroleum products, throughout the nation.

Steve LeBlanc, the city manager in Galveston, a coastal island city of about 60,000 people, expressed relief that people had evacuated. "Galveston is going to suffer," he said. "And we are going to need to get it back in order as quickly as possible. I would say that we probably have 90 percent of our residents have left the island. It feels like a ghost town to me, and that's a good thing."

The National Hurricane Center said Rita may slow as it arrives, raising the possibility Rita could spend several days dumping as much as 60 centimeters of rain on eastern Texas. Rain associated with Hurricane Rita has already begun to fall on New Orleans.

Governor Kathleen Blanco said the rain threatens to flood the city again.

"The levees are in weakened conditions. We are urging people certainly not to stay in the eastern part of new Orleans. Very few people are there right now. We do know there are a number of people in western new Orleans and I think in Jefferson Parish, as well. Those people need to pay very close attention because of the storm surge," she said.

Among people being forced to flee Hurricane Rita are evacuees who came to Texas after Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, causing more than 1,000 deaths including 700 in Louisiana.