Residents along the U.S. Gulf coast are bracing for the arrival of Hurricane Rita, the second powerful storm to hit the area since late August. In New Orleans, rising water has over-topped a levee and is again pouring into parts of the devastated city. The full force of Hurricane Rita is expected to hit the Texas and Louisiana coast later today or early Saturday.
Weather forecasters say that although the storm may have weakened slightly, it still packs a powerful punch.
"We are going to see a storm surge of 15 to 20 [4.5 to 6 meters] feet and winds of over 100 [160 kilometers] miles an hour and also, this is a huge storm, so hurricane force winds extend out almost 80 miles [129 kilometers] from the center. Tropical force winds extend out 200 miles [320 kilometers] from the center. So, we are going to have major impacts all along that Texas-Louisiana coastline."
Rita is expected to make landfall along the coast by early Saturday and her impending arrival sparked a massive and messy evacuation along roads leading out of Galveston and Houston, Texas.
That evacuation sparked a tragedy Friday when a bus carrying about 45 elderly evacuees caught fire on a major highway outside Dallas. Officials fear about half of those on the bus may have died in the inferno.
Traffic jams on some highways around Houston had eased Friday but there were plenty of stories of frustrated and marooned drivers who have been trying to flee the storm.
One man and his family finally gave up and returned home.
"We stayed on [highway] I-10 and traveled I-10 for a total of 12 hours," he said. "Finally, you know, we were about ready to run out of gas and we said, you know, if you are going to get caught in a storm someplace, you might as well get caught in your home."
A woman said the highways she traveled on were more like parking lots.
"We were following instructions and I think everybody was trying to do what they were told to do," she said. "Everybody was trying to respond and it has just been a disaster. We saw people camping on the freeway last night. They had pitched tents because there was no place to sleep. People are running out of gas."
In fact, local officials in Houston are now urging residents to stay in place if they have not already started moving.
"This is still a big storm but most folks in this community are better off in their homes than they are off on a highway at this point," said Judge Robert Eckels, the chief executive of the county around Houston. "There is always a time when it is better not to leave and you are getting very close to that at this point."
Some residents have already taken that advice to heart.
"Personally, I have a really nice pillow and I have a sleeping bag on the floor and I am basically riding it out here," one woman said.
Others in the Houston area were making one last attempt to leave by way of local airports before they close.
"We have got lots of clothes and our dog and we are going to San Francisco and from there we are driving to Lake Tahoe [California]," said one resident.
Federal, state and local officials insist they are better prepared to deal with Rita than they were for Hurricane Katrina, which devastated parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama just a few weeks ago. President Bush heads to Texas later Friday for a first hand look at storm preparations.
Tropical storm warnings have been issued for the city of New Orleans, already struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers say water is again pouring over a levee and flooding one of the city's low lying areas. Officials say they have a crew at the scene and are trying to hold back the rising waters, but they say the levee itself has not broken. For days engineers have been furiously working to shore up the city's shaky system of levees to prevent another round of flooding.
Some environmentalists worry that Hurricane Rita could wreak havoc with the large number of petrochemical plants along the Texas and Louisiana coast. The area is home to the nation's largest concentration of oil refineries.