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Hurricane Rita Closes in on Texas as Millions Seek Shelter

Forecasters expect the eye of Hurricane Rita to hit land near Port Arthur, Texas in the coming hours, but, as VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, many areas along the coast are already experiencing the effects of the storm.

Before Hurricane Rita's eye made landfall in the early morning hours of Saturday, local time, high winds and rain from the storm's outer bands began menacing the area around midday Friday. Heavy rains from Rita's outer bands caused one of the levees damaged by Hurricane Katrina earlier this month in New Orleans to break again Friday, allowing water to flood back into a neighborhood that had only recently been pumped dry.

Both Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas could experience major flooding as Rita's storm surge comes ashore and is augmented by heavy rains. The cities sit less than two meters above sea level and the storm surge is expected to be above six meters. Parts of Port Arthur are below sea level and the city relies on levees similar to those in New Orleans.

Texas Emergency Management Coordinator Jack Colley says state relief teams are positioned in the region and ready for the worst.

"The key to this event will be the enormity of it," he explained. "We are estimating that hurricane force winds will be in that area for up to 16 sustained hours, which is an incredible challenge."

The economic impact of Hurricane Rita will likely put more strain on the U.S. economy and lead to higher energy prices all over the nation. Texas officials expect more than $8 billion in damage. In addition, economic activity throughout the area is at a standstill after the exit of 2.7 million people and the closure of almost every business in the entire area.

Most of the 112,000 residents of Beaumont and the 57,000 citizens of Port Arthur fled long before the outer bands of Rita arrived. But there are dozens of large oil refineries and chemical plants in these cities that may remain closed for some time as result of the storm.

A prolonged shutdown of refineries in this area, and in nearby Lake Charles, Louisiana, would come on top of the damage done to refineries and oil production facilities in the New Orleans area by Hurricane Katrina. Energy experts expect at least a temporary jump in fuel prices throughout the country as a result.

Hurricane Rita will also challenge the U.S. insurance industry, which is still working overtime to process claims from New Orleans and coastal areas of Mississippi and Alabama resulting from Hurricane Katrina.

As was the case in New Orleans, which flooded after Hurricane Katrina, many of the most vulnerable neighborhoods in Beaumont, Port Arthur and Lake Charles are home to the poorest of the poor. Nearly a quarter of the people in all three cities live below the poverty level and they tend to live in the lowest, most flood-prone sections.

The arrival of Rita has further disrupted the lives of tens of thousands of evacuees from New Orleans who came to Houston and other nearby communities seeking shelter. Many thousands of them had moved into apartments and houses in Houston and now they are once again displaced and seeking shelter from another storm.

President Bush is monitoring military aspects of the federal government's hurricane assistance while visiting an air base in Colorado.