Hurricane Rita slashed past the Florida Keys and swelled in strength Tuesday as it treaded into the Gulf of Mexico with 115-mph winds. Weather forecasters warned that the storm could approach the ferocious Category 4 intensity of Hurricane Katrina, prompting massive preparations by jittery officials and residents from flood-numbed New Orleans to the Texas coastline.
The gathering storm sideswiped the Keys and Florida’s southern peninsula, spawning waterspouts and funnel clouds, and leaving much of Key West and other populated areas with slight damage. The National Weather Service said early today that the storm had reached Category 3 strength and was expected to become a Category 4 hurricane before landfall late Friday or Saturday. A Category 4 hurricane has winds from 131 to 155 mph.
Centered about 145 miles west of Key West early today, the storm’s projected path would direct it through the Gulf of Mexico toward the Texas coast, near the major oil-refining and port city of Galveston, where 57,000 residents were ordered to evacuate this morning. Weather Service experts said there was only a remote chance that Rita would repeat Katrina’s devastating assault on New Orleans, but authorities were concerned that steady rains might overwhelm weakened levees and re-flood the broken city’s low-lying areas.
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco asked President Bush on Tuesday to declare a federal emergency in her state again. “We learned the lessons of Katrina,” Blanco said, urging residents to make preparations. “We will take all precautions necessary to save lives.”
The move came several hours after Bush, along with Blanco, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and federal and military emergency officials, toured New Orleans and was briefed on Rita’s ominous progress. Told that Rita would intensify at least to a Category 3 storm, Bush said officials “all up and down this coastline” were readying for “yet another significant storm.”
Army Corps of Engineers officials were preparing to wedge massive steel barriers over New Orleans’ fragile dikes to counter a feared new round of flooding. Authorities said a heavy rain would almost certainly submerge low-lying neighborhoods such as the 9th Ward, but they raised hopes that the newly reinforced levees would protect much of the rest of the city.
Nagin said he would reassert a mandatory evacuation order for New Orleans two days after he had called on residents and merchants to return to the city’s most habitable sections after much of the floodwater had finally ebbed.
“We know now what it takes to fully mobilize,” Nagin said. “We’re better prepared this time. We’re getting the word out now earlier.”
Nagin said 500 buses were on standby orders to evacuate residents who had trickled back into the city and joined an estimated 500 die-hards who had refused to leave. The buses were provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, criticized for its failure before Katrina to mobilize adequate transportation for the city’s poor.
Nagin said that police would not “force people to leave by gunpoint,” and that residents were already leaving. Chartered buses removed at least 500 people by day’s end, he said.
Police and military units tightened the reins on checkpoints, backing up traffic for miles, and many residents who had waited weeks to come home prepared to leave again.
“God is testing us,” said Arthur Williams, 45, a painting and Sheetrock contractor who fled Louisiana for Houston with his fiancee before Katrina and made it home Tuesday, only to wearily begin preparations to leave again. “That’s what it is. At this point, that’s all it can be.”
Experts at the National Hurricane Center in Miami predicted that Rita would make landfall in Texas between Corpus Christi and Galveston, meaning that its high winds and storm surges would come close to hitting New Orleans and probably cause significant rain.
Army Corps officials said they would know by noon today whether to ready steel barriers to seal off two of the city’s main canals -- at 17th Street and London Avenue -- that normally allow water to drain into Lake Pontchartrain. But officials said they could not use the barriers on a third damaged canal, meaning that heavy rainfall could send torrents flooding back into St. Bernard Parish and the 9th Ward.
“The situation is intense,” said Col. Duane Gapinski, a corps official. “But we are determined. Certainly, we are not panicking. We are doing all we possibly can with the resources we have.”
Bush pressed a similar message after emerging from a briefing aboard the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima. He said Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, FEMA’s point man for the Gulf Coast relief operation, would “stay in charge of the Louisiana-Mississippi area.” A second military official would be stationed in Texas, Bush said.
“We’ve got military assets that are being taken out of the New Orleans area, out of harm’s way, and will come back in behind the storm, to follow up where it’s needed,” the president said.
Hours later, the Iwo Jima joined four other Navy ships in heading out into the gulf, preparing to elude the approaching storm and then double back toward the coast near the storm’s point of impact. The moves were part of massive storm preparations undertaken by the military Tuesday -- a heightened state of alert that Bush had cited Thursday as the armed forces’ widening role in natural disasters.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush ordered 2,400 Florida National Guard troops to active duty before the storm struck Tuesday, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry ordered 1,100 Texas National Guard troops now in Louisiana back to their home state. Blanco cautioned that even if Hurricane Rita made landfall in Beaumont, Texas, close to the Texas-Louisiana border, New Orleans could be in the same position Mississippi was in for Katrina: on the east side of the storm, where the most powerful winds are.
“We are praying that the hurricane dissipates, that it weakens,” Blanco said. “We can hardly stand to think about what we would have to deal with.”
An intensifying Rita gave a soaking and a scare to residents of the Florida Keys, the isles that form a gentle arc south of the Florida peninsula. But it wasn’t the killer storm that Keys residents had long feared.
“If this is all it is, we have been lucky again,” said Monroe County Sheriff Richard Roth. “We’ve dodged another bullet.”
As it moved south, Rita cut within 50 miles of Key West, the archipelago’s largest city. The storm whipped up a chocolate-tinted surf that poured onto the Overseas Highway, which is only a foot above sea level in places and is the only road link to the mainland. The surf left a thick mat of brownish seaweed, coconuts and the occasional float torn from a lobster pot on the road -- but after five hours, police reopened both lanes of U.S. 1.
Roth said his deputies and local firefighters had been called in to evacuate 12 people who had hunkered down in their trailer park in Islamorada. Roth estimated that 40,000 people, about half the year-round population in this popular tourist and fishing destination, had heeded calls to evacuate -- but another 40,000 stayed.
Even storm-toughened “Conchs,” as Keys natives are known, appeared to have been spooked by the images of flooding and other devastation on the Gulf Coast in Louisiana and Mississippi, where 973 have been found dead.
As Rita, the third hurricane to strike the United States this year, began to batter the Keys, authorities warned residents to stay off the road and hole up in a safe place.
“You’re taking your lives in your hands going across that water,” said Sharon Harrold, a director at the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.
In Key West, traffic lights were knocked out, neighborhoods reported power losses, and Duval Street, the main drag for cruise ship passengers and other tourists, was practically deserted.
“We are tired of hurricanes. We are moving to Alaska,” was the message painted on the boards protecting one trattoria.
In Galveston, televised images of wind-whipped palms and submerged highways in Florida -- and a voluntary evacuation order -- spurred thousands to evacuate. After consulting with local and state emergency officials most of the day, Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas implemented a mandatory evacuation, due to start this morning.
“You should be, and I hope you have been, listening to us. It’s time to get on the highway,” Thomas said.
The island city was ravaged 105 years ago by a hurricane that left 12,000 dead and prodded city officials to build the seawall that now stands near its placid beach.
Army Corps officials began surveying the coastline Tuesday in anticipation of the storm and stocked up on sandbags to thwart flooding on the town’s west side, which is 10 feet above sea level but still prone to inundation during a major hurricane.
The last major hurricane to strike Texas was Alicia, which caused more than $2 billion in damage in 1983. Twenty-one people died in the Category 3 hurricane, all of them in Houston. Tropical Storm Allison hit the region in 2001.
Hundreds of tourists in beachfront hotels and condominiums were already nervously packing up their cars for the long drive back to Houston. At the Casa Del Mar Beachfront Suites, general manager Theresa Elliott said her staff was “in a holding pattern until the city tells us for sure.” While guests drove out past the placid waves drifting in from the gulf, staffers rounded up stray chairs and began securing storm shields.
Those fleeing the coastal Houston area are expected to drive through the nation’s fourth-largest city en route to shelters expected to open farther inland. They will not be welcome to stay in Houston.
“Houston is not a good shelter city, even if the hotels were not filled,” said county Judge Robert Eckels, director of the office of emergency management for Harris County. “But we have people from New Orleans and the mid-Gulf Coast. They have filled our hotel rooms and may have to leave.”
In addition, he said, the Reliant Arena shelter and the Astrodome, which had served as a refuge for Katrina’s evacuees, are not appropriate places to wait out a serious storm.
“This shelter is not safe in a major hurricane,” Eckels said. “The Astrodome ceiling is heavy plastic.... If it breaks, you’ll have shards of heavy plastic flying around. We would not put people here as a shelter for a Category 4 or 5 hurricane.”
Houston-area officials announced that they had activated disaster plans and begun to identify residents who received in-home care or stayed in assisted living facilities for evacuation, and warned Houstonians to be ready for the worst should Rita hit land as expected overnight Friday.
At the same time, hundreds of weary evacuees who had been transported from hellish circumstances in Louisiana to shelters in Houston over the last three weeks faced a new trek.
Officials said they planned to close down the shelter at the Reliant Center -- Houston’s largest temporary facility for Katrina evacuees -- and transfer people to Ft. Chaffee, Ark., before Rita’s approach.
Many of the 976 evacuees who remained at the Reliant Center had begun their journeys at the Superdome in New Orleans, were airlifted to Houston’s Astrodome, shifted to the Reliant Center when the Astrodome shelter closed, and were packing up for the unknown yet again.
“I’m tired, I’m tired,” said Darrell Lewis, 41, as he waited for a bus to Ellington Airfield and an eventual plane to Arkansas. “I just want to settle down, go someplace and stay there and get my life back together. I been in three places already, and now I’m going to Arkansas.”
Dahlburg reported from Key West, Gold from New Orleans and La Ganga from Houston. Times staff writers Susannah Rosenblatt in Baton Rouge, La., and Stephen Braun, Edwin Chen, Mark Mazzetti and Ricardo-Alonso Zaldivar in Washington contributed to this report.