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Tens of Thousands Flee Hurricane Rita in Texas

Highways and roads in the Houston area are packed with vehicles as tens of thousands of people flee the Gulf of Mexico coast ahead of the expected landfall of Hurricane Rita. The exact point where the storm will come ashore is still not certain, but officials are taking no chances.

Outer bands of wind and rain have arrived in parts of southern Louisiana and forecasters expect the same for parts of southeastern Texas in the coming hours. Meanwhile, the eye, or center, of hurricane Rita continues to shift, or wobble, with slight movements east and then back west as it hovers over the Gulf waters.

Forecasters say residents of the coastal area should not take encouragement from momentary eastward shifts, as the storm could switch direction again at any time. Houston Mayor Bill White also stresses the danger posed by the storm in a wide band stretching out for many kilometers on either side of the eye.

"As it moves east and north you may hear people talking about how this may mean less damage," he said. "But by all accounts the winds are high, the rains are high, and in the areas more prone to flooding in the past, citizens should take prudent measures because there could be a lot of citizens at risk."

But Mayor White says people in areas that are not designated as at risk for flooding or a storm surge should now stay put and not further clog evacuation routes. He says there is also a danger that people who try to flee now may end up being stranded in their vehicles when the worst part of the storm moves inland. Traffic along such major highways as Interstate 45, leading north out of Houston, was bumper-to-bumper all day Thursday.

State and local plans to have gasoline distributed at strategic points along evacuation routes have failed to alleviate shortages and some motorists have abandoned their vehicles after running out of gas. Long lines formed at the few gasoline stations that remained open Thursday and there were some scuffles between frightened and frustrated people whose evacuation plans ground to a halt when fuel ran out.

Most stores in the region have also closed and such essential items as bottled water and canned food have already disappeared from the shelves of the few stores that remain open. There were overflow crowds at Houston's two airports Thursday as people tried to get on flights out of the city.

The situation was made worse when dozens of federal Transportation Security Administration luggage checkers failed to show up for work, causing long delays at terminal entry points.

State officials have established shelters for coastal evacuees in several towns and cities in northern and central Texas, but a large percentage of the people fleeing in cars say they intend to either find a hotel or stay with friends or relatives until the storm passes. Forecasters say Hurricane Rita will likely make landfall late Friday or early Saturday. Although the storm will deliver heavy rains and severe winds to the coast, its power is expected to diminish as it moves in over land.