Hurricane Rita grew into a Category 5 storm on Wednesday and took aim at Texas as officials began evacuating more than a million people from most of the coast and parts of Houston.
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"We hope and pray that Hurricane Rita will not be a devastating storm, but we've got to be ready for the worst," said U.S. President George W. Bush, who was heavily criticized for an ill-prepared federal response to Hurricane Katrina.
Bush declared emergencies for Texas and neighboring Louisiana, which authorized the Homeland Security Department and Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate all disaster relief operations.
The U.S. National Hurricane Centre said Rita had become "an extremely dangerous" Category 5 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 165 mph (265 kph) as it moved over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. A Category 5 storm can cause catastrophic damage.
Rita lashed the Florida Keys on Tuesday but did little damage to the vulnerable Florida islands.
The storm was expected to strengthen over the central Gulf but may also weaken slightly as it continues west, the National Hurricane Centre said earlier on Wednesday. The storm was expected to make landfall by Saturday "as a major hurricane ... at least Category 3," the centre said. A Category 3 storm can cause extensive damage.
Rita would most likely hit the Texas coast southwest of Galveston, where in 1900 at least 8,000 people died in the deadliest U.S. hurricane, reports Reuters.
In Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city, thousands of people were on the move. Mayor Bill White ordered evacuations of mobile homes and parts of the city of 2 million that are prone to storm surges. He asked people in flood plains to leave voluntarily.
Gov. Rick Perry urged people along the Texas coast from Mexico to Louisiana to head inland.
With images of Hurricane Katrina and its chaotic aftermath still fresh, tens of thousands of residents heeded the warnings, packed up and got out. Galveston provided buses for nursing home residents, hospital patients, children in state care, 600 public housing residents and others without their own means to escape.
Galveston's streets emptied. At the RaceWay gas station on Broadway, drivers topped off their tanks before hopping on Interstate 45.
Thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees from New Orleans are in shelters and other temporary housing in Houston. Many weren't willing to be rousted again.
Florence Pellerin, 60, an unemployed security officer, said she will remain in the Houston hotel where her daughter placed her after a stay at the Astrodome shelter. Of Rita, she said: "It can't do anything but kill me. And I already feel like I'm dead," informs USA Today.