Rita strengthened into a hurricane as it headed toward the Gulf of Mexico, threatening to hit the coasts of Texas and Louisiana by this weekend.
Rita is forecast to pass the lower Florida Keys by midday and head into the warm waters of the Gulf, the National Hurricane Center said. It will gain power as it moves over the warm water, and will be a so-called Category 3 storm with winds of at least 111 mph when it reaches the Texas coastline by the weekend, center meteorologist Chris Sisko said.
While Rita is forecast to hit anywhere from Corpus Christi to Galveston, there is a chance it may veer to the east and strike Louisiana's coast, Sisko said. This threat to the coastal region already devastated by Hurricane Katrina prompted New Orleans's mayor to suspend plans for residents to reenter the city and officials in Texas to call for a voluntary evacuation.
``The greatest chance, in terms of computer models, is for Rita to hit Texas, but Louisiana is also indicated by a few models,'' Sisko said today in an interview.
Rita was located about 100 miles (161 kilometers) east- southeast of Key West, Florida, as of 8 a.m. local time, the hurricane center said. The storm is moving west about 15 mph and may dump as much as 12 inches of rain on the Keys.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin yesterday suspended plans to allow residents to return to their homes and businesses because of the risk posed by Rita. The Louisiana city, once home to a half a million people, was flooded after Hurricane Katrina's storm surge overwhelmed the system of levees and pumps that held back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River.