Hurricane Rita roared toward the Texas and Louisiana coast with 140 mph (225 kph) winds Friday, creating monumental traffic jams along evacuation routes and raising fears of a crippling blow to the nation's oil-refining industry. As many as 24 people were killed when a bus carrying elderly evacuees caught fire.
In rainy New Orleans, water poured over a patched levee, gushing into one of the city's lowest-lying neighborhoods, the hard-hit and largely empty Ninth Ward, and heightening fears that Rita would flood the devastated city all over again, the AP says.
"Our worst fears came true. The levee will breach if we keep on the path we are on right now, which will fill the area that was flooded earlier," Barry Guidry of the Georgia National Guard.
The storm's punishing winds were expected to reach the Texas-Louisiana coast late Friday or early Saturday along a course that could spare Houston and Galveston a direct hit. But Rita could plow into the Beaumont and Port Arthur area, a stretch of refineries and chemical plants about 75 miles (120 kilometers) east of Houston.
By Friday morning, the highways within Houston had cleared out, but it was still bumper-to-bumper traffic from the outskirts of Houston toward Austin and Dallas. The state began escorting tanker trucks full of gas to empty stations in small towns along the way.
Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, the chief executive for the county surrounding Houston, told residents who had not left yet to stay where they were for the storm.
As Pravda.ru reported earlier, the bus fire took place in a traffic jam on Interstate 45 near Wilmer, southeast of Dallas. The vehicle was rocked by explosions and engulfed in flames that reduced it to a blackened, burned-out shell.
Early indications were that it caught fire because of mechanical problems, then passengers' oxygen tanks started exploding, Dallas County Sheriff's Department spokesman Don Peritz said.
Nearly 2 million people along the Texas and Louisiana coasts were urged to get out of the way of Rita, setting off an unprecedented exodus that brought traffic to a standstill across the Houston metropolitan area. Cars overheated and ran out of gas in 10- and 12-hour traffic jams. Some drivers gave up and turned around and went home.
"It can't get much worse, 100 yards (meters) an hour," fumed Willie Bayer, 70. "It's frustrating bumper-to-bumper."
Scores of petrochemical plants are situated along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast in the nation's biggest concentration of oil refineries, and damage and disruptions caused by Rita could cause already-rising oil and gasoline prices to go even higher. Environmentalists warned of the possibility of a toxic spill.
Plants shut down operations and hundreds of workers were evacuated from offshore oil rigs. Texas Gov. Rick Perry said state officials had been in contact with plants about "taking appropriate procedures to safeguard their facilities."