Rita Now Category 2 Hurricane

9-20-05 - Rita strengthened rapidly on Tuesday to a Category 2 hurricane as it lashed the Florida Keys with flooding rain and strong wind and sparked fears the storm could eventually bring new misery to the Gulf Coast.

Rita went from a tropical storm with top sustained wind of 70 mph early Tuesday to a hurricane with 100 mph wind by early afternoon as it passed just south of the Keys, the National Hurricane Center said.

Taking a cue from the suffering in New Orleans, officials called for a voluntary evacuation of this island city as Hurricane Rita threatens to slam into the Texas Coast this weekend. Officials also began steps to fly thousands of Hurricane Katrina refugees in Texas shelters to Arkansas.

Gov. Rick Perry on Monday recalled all emergency personnel helping with recovery from Hurricane Katrina to prepare for Rita, including almost 1,200 Texas National Guard members.

"We're preparing for potential inland flooding and tornadoes by prepositioning water rescue teams," governor's office spokeswoman Kathy Walt said Tuesday.

Authorities stressed that those fleeing the coastal area should bypass Houston, which Mayor Bill White noted could lose power and is prone to flooding, and drive on to Dallas, San Antonio or Austin.

Harris County Judge Robert Eckels warned that the Houston Astrodome, which temporarily sheltered tens of thousands of Katrina refugees, could not be used if a storm headed that way because of its glass roof.

Katrina refugees still in Houston-area shelters were to be flown on commercial airliners to Arkansas starting Tuesday afternoon.

Roland Mitt, 36, of New Orleans, was one of those in Houston reluctantly awaiting the trip to Arkansas.

"I'm so much tired I'm running out of patience," he said. "I'm upset, I'm mad, I'm disgusted _ all of the above."

Arkansas is prepared to take up to 4,000 Katrina refugees from Texas, officials said.

"We could potentially be looking at taking an enormous amount of people from Houston," Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said. "We're going to have to prepare in the event. It would tax us if we had to, but we would do it."

Arkansas already is home to about 50,000 Katrina evacuees, most of them staying with friends and relatives.

Officials in Galveston, which is some 40 miles southeast of Houston, said residents should begin leaving Tuesday. This month marks the 105th anniversary of the hurricane that wiped out Galveston in one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history. An estimated 8,000 people were killed.

Officials said a mandatory evacuation could be ordered if Rita strengthens into a Category 3 hurricane, with wind of up to 130 mph and the potential to create flooding up to 8 miles inland. A forecast track put the storm near the Texas coast by early Saturday.

"Today is boarding up and decision day for Galvestonians," city spokeswoman Mary Jo Naschke said Tuesday morning.

Buses were to begin running Tuesday for people who can't leave on their own, taking them to shelters about 100 miles north in Huntsville. Residents may take pets in cages along on the buses, Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said. "We found that so many people didn't want to leave New Orleans because they didn't want to leave their pets behind," she said.


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