Rita, the third-most intense storm ever recorded in the Atlantic basin, bore down on the Texas coast as residents moved inland. The Category 5 storm is more powerful than Katrina, which left more than 1,000 dead last month in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.
Rita, with winds of 175 mph (280 kph), is "potentially catastrophic," the National Hurricane Center said today in an advisory on its Web site at about 3:45 a.m. Houston time. The storm is forecast to hit land near Galveston, Texas, late tomorrow or early Sept. 24. Rita's center was 515 miles southeast of Galveston, and moving west-northwest near 9 mph.
"You're talking about a catastrophic disaster, with extensive damage," Dave Roberts, a meteorologist at the center in Miami, said today in a telephone interview. "Look at the impacts of Katrina: You're going to get that all over again."
More than 1 million residents were urged or ordered by officials to move inland in Texas. Valero Energy Corp., the largest U.S. oil refiner, and other oil producers were closing refineries in anticipation of the storm. The Texas Gulf Coast has seven of the 13 largest U.S. refineries and the state produces about 25 percent of the nation's refined fuel supply.
Katrina on Aug. 29 hit Louisiana with winds of 140 mph after earlier blowing at 175 mph as it moved over the warm waters of the Gulf. The storm submerged most of New Orleans and destroyed towns, including Gulfport and Biloxi in Mississippi, reports Bloomberg.
According to CNN, more than 1,000 deaths are blamed on Katrina, which struck August 29.
Mayfield said the long reach of Hurricane Rita's winds may begin making evacuation difficult by Friday, so residents who need to evacuate should plan to leave Thursday.
Forecasters expect the center of Rita to make landfall somewhere between the Texas cities of Corpus Christi and Galveston. But because of the power and size of the hurricane which has a tropical wind field 370 miles wide the effects will likely be felt far from the point of landfall. (Watch how Galveston is in a precarious location 1:58)
Galveston, a city of 60,000 people, was flattened by an infamous hurricane in 1900. (Watch a report on the storm of the century 2:00)
On Wednesday night, forecasters said Rita had become the third most powerful hurricane recorded in the Atlantic Basin, based on its central pressure.
Wind speeds accelerate as a hurricane's internal pressure measured in millibars decreases, pulling high pressure air into the low-pressure center of the storm.
Photo: the AP