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Hurricane Rita Closes in on Texas-Louisiana Coast

Hurricane Rita is roaring toward the Gulf Coast of the United States, forcing millions of people in Texas and Louisiana to evacuate. The storm is expected to slam into the coast early Saturday, bringing punishing winds and heavy rain across a large area. Forecasters say Rita is weakening, but remains a very dangerous storm.

Weather forecasters say hurricane Rita is on a path to strike a potentially destructive blow near the border of Louisiana and Texas.

More than two-and-a-half million people have fled the coastal areas of southeast Texas and 500,000 have been asked to leave the low lying areas of nearby Louisiana.

The National Weather Service says the hurricane could cause a coastal storm surge of up to six meters.

Jack Colley, the Texas state coordinator for emergency management, says regions in the direct path of Rita will feel the impact of the storm for many hours. "The key to this event will be the enormity of it. We are estimating that hurricane force winds will be in that area for up to 16 sustained hours, which is an incredible challenge," he said.

Tragedy stuck during the mass evacuations when a bus carrying about 45 elderly people from a nursing home caught fire and was rocked by explosions. Authorities say about half of the people on the bus died in the blaze.

Officials say they are better prepared for Rita than they were for Hurricane Katrina, which slammed into the Gulf Coast late last month.

The Acting Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, David Paulison, says truckloads of water, food and ice as well as tens of thousands of active duty and reserve troops have been prepositioned close to coastal areas. "I think at this point the federal government has done pretty much all that it is possible to do. Right now we just have to wait out the storm, see exactly where it makes landfall and then move ahead with our supplies that we have on the ground and our resources," he said.

Heavy rains from Rita have complicated the already difficult situation in New Orleans.

Fast-rising water spilled over a patched levee and flooded a deserted neighborhood in the city already devastated by hurricane Katrina.

Texas Governor Rick Perry urged his citizens to remain calm, saying workers are ready to help them.

"We are going to get through this because so many of our citizens took this evacuation very seriously and because this state has thousands of rescue and relief workers on standby. So be calm, be strong and say a prayer for Texas," he said.

VOA correspondent Greg Flakus is in Houston, Texas. He told the Talk to America program the impact of the hurricane is likely to be felt across the United States because the Gulf Coast area produces much of the nation's gasoline.

"Well ahead of the storm coming, the oil platforms offshore shutdown, and this region accounts for more than 25 percent of all the oil produced domestically in the United States so you start spreading that out and looking at it and you can see there is going to be a real uptick in prices down the road and perhaps real severe shortages," he said.

Dozens of chemical plants and the nation's biggest concentration of oil refineries are situated along the Gulf Coast and environmentalists are warning of a possible disaster as Rita slams into the region.