Gulf Coast Prepares For Rita's Landfall

UPDATE, 1PM FRI: Hurricane Rita has been downgraded to a Category Three storm with top winds of 125 mph. Landfall is still expected sometime overnight Friday.

UPDATE, FRI, 10:35 AM: Officials believe a New Orleans neighborhood has been completely cleared of residents as water pours back in.

An aide to Mayor Ray Nagin says "I wouldn't imagine there's one person down there."

The aide says law enforcement officials are being notified of the rising water, but it's not clear whether the workers will be asked to leave.

Water has been rising quickly in the city's impoverished Ninth Ward. A waterfall at least 30 feet wide is pouring over a dike that had been used to patch breaks in the Industrial Canal levee.

The neighborhood was one of the areas hit hardest by Katrina's floodwaters. It had been pumped dry before Hurricane Rita brought wind and steady rains.

UPDATE, FRI, 10:15 AM: Hurricane Rita is losing a bit of strength and is barely a Category Four storm.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami says Rita's wind now clocks at 135 miles-per-hour. Forecasters say it could weaken slightly to a Category Three, but they still say it will be "a major hurricane" when it comes ashore.

The center says Rita is centered about 220 miles southeast of Galveston and about 210 miles southeast of Port Arthur in Texas. That's about as far as the storm's tropical-storm-force winds are reaching. Hurricane force wind extends up to 85 miles from Rita's center.

Forecasters say Rita will pack "large and dangerous battering waves" and a storm surge that could reach 15 feet over normal tide levels around where Rita hits shore.

UPDATE, FRI, 5:15 AM: Hurricane Rita is still a very dangerous Category Four storm. At 5:00 AM, Eastern time, Rita was about 290 miles southeast of Galveston, Texas, and 250 miles southeast of Cameron, Louisiana.

Its winds are still 140 miles-an-hour, but its movement has slowed down a little to nine miles an hour. The core is expected to approach the Texas-Louisiana coast Friday night.

UPDATE, 4PM THUR: Traffic out of metropolitan Houston is bumper-to-bumper. This, even though more than 100 miles of interstate highway has been made a one-way street -- northbound only.

And now there's the ironic scene of gasoline pumps running dry and drivers running out of gas in an area that's the center of the nation's oil and gas refining.

Police officers are trying to ease things by bringing gas to stranded motorists. Meantime, Texas authorities have taken a couple of steps: they've asked the Pentagon to help get gas to drivers stuck in traffic, and they've sent gasoline tankers to take up positions along evacuation routes to help.

Nearly two (m) million residents in Texas and Louisiana have been ordered to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Rita, now a Category Four storm packing winds of 150 miles per hour.

There's a problem at the airport in Houston.

Mayor Bill White says most of the airport's federal Transportation Security Administration personnel didn't show up for work Thursday. Those are the security people, including the ones that screen passengers.

White says the loss of those essential workers means delays for travelers of possibly four or five hours.

UPDATE, THU, 6:30 AM: It's a sea of red brake lights on highways heading away from the Texas coast. With Hurricane Rita at Category Five status, people are trying to get out of the way. All routes leading north and west from Houston have been jammed with vehicles carrying boxes on their roofs.

In one case, two children in wheelchairs and a tired-looking woman in hospital scrubs sat at a bus stop waiting for a ride. The mayor says Galveston is running short of buses to take people off the island and she warns that stragglers may have to fend for themselves.

Officials in Corpus Christi have about 100 buses ready Thursday morning, to evacuate people who have no other way to get out. The National Hurricane Center says Rita is about 515 miles east-southeast of Galveston and is moving west at nearly nine miles an hour. Forecasters predict it will come ashore Saturday on the Texas coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi.

UPDATE, WED 6:35 PM: Residents of the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans are trying to decide if they should stay or go.

With Hurricane Rita likely to bring rain to the Crescent City at a time when it can handle it least, people like Karen Sanchez say they can't make up their minds. The lifelong resident says, "Katrina was the first hurricane we left for." Sanchez says Katrina left behind such destruction, that she now feels a bit gun-shy.

Sanchez says, "I just can't stop crying about it. You think you're getting it together, and I could just sob right now." Algiers residents were allowed to come home on Monday. The city has yet to issue a mandatory evacuation order for them. But New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has asked the people left in the city to leave.

UPDATE: 2:39 PM: With Hurricane Rita about two days away, thousands of Texas coast residents are getting out while the getting is good. Galveston and parts of Houston are under mandatory evacuation orders.

Buses bound for inland shelters have already begun transporting the elderly and others needing help. Able-bodied residents of Galveston must start leaving by 6 p.m., though authorities suggest there's no reason to wait.

Galveston's mayor says this morning's evacuations have gone smoothly. She said people have been calm, and there's been enough room for them to take "their dog crates, their cat crates, their shopping carts." Public housing residents are among those being bused, and Galveston officials promise none will be left behind. The city manager counts plenty of buses, and vows to keep them ready for all who need them until, in his words, "the bitter end."

UPDATE, WED, 7:30 AM: Hurricane Rita has strengthened into a Category Four storm packing winds up to 135-miles-per hour. The National Hurricane Center says Rita could strengthen even more as it steams across the Gulf of Mexico in the next 24 hours. Concerns have deepened that the storm could target Texas and already-battered Louisiana by week's end. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff urged residents to heed calls for evacuation. He says the best place to be if Rita hits is somewhere else. Texas Governor Rick Perry tells NBC his state is as ready as it can be and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco has declared a state of emergency. Emergency officials say it won't take much to breach the city's battered levees.

UPDATE, 5PM TUE: The head of the National Hurricane Center is raising warning flags about Hurricane Rita. Max Mayfield told a Senate panel that Rita poses a ''big problem'' as it heads into the Gulf of Mexico, where it is expected to strengthen. Forecasters say Rita could intensify in the gulf into a Category Four storm with winds of at least 131 miles-an-hour. This is roughly the halfway mark of what has been a very busy hurricane season. Mayfield says the increased hurricane activity is cyclical, and has been occurring since 1995. He says it'll probably continue for another ten to 20 years.

EARLIER: Tropical Storm Rita is headed toward the Florida Straits, and could hit Key West sometime Tuesday. Eventually, the storm is expected to go into the Gulf and strengthen into a major hurricane, before heading to the Louisiana or Texas coast. In the Florida Keys, there was the usual boarding and buying, but three weeks after Katrina hit, many residents were not as willing to try to ride out the storm. There were warnings from the governor, to not be fooled by the category of the storm. Rita could strengthen to a Category Two by the time it hits the Keys later Tuesday. Heavy rain and up to a nine-foot storm surge are expected. Key West Mayor Jim Weekly says, "What's unusual here is the possibility we could have that storm surge on both sides of the island." And while the Keys now wait, preparations are already underway in Texas and Louisiana. New Orleans has suspended re-entry by its residents and Louisiana's governor is urging people to get ready. Contributions courtesy AP, All Rights Reserved.