- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 20, 2005

KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) — Rapidly strengthening Hurricane Rita lashed the Florida Keys yesterday and headed into the Gulf of Mexico, where forecasters feared that it could develop into another blockbuster storm targeting Texas or Louisiana.

Thousands of people were evacuated from the Keys and low-lying areas of northern Cuba. On the far side of the Gulf of Mexico in Texas, Galveston started evacuations and officials made plans to move refugees from Hurricane Katrina who had been housed in the Houston area to Arkansas.

Forecasters said Rita could intensify in the Gulf of Mexico into a Category 4 storm with winds of at least 131 mph. The most likely destination by week’s end was Texas, although Louisiana and northern Mexico also are at risk, the National Hurricane Center said.

R. David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told reporters that the agency has aircraft and buses available to evacuate residents of areas in the hurricane’s projected path. Rescue teams and truckloads of ice, water and prepared meals were being sent to Texas and Florida.

“I strongly urge Gulf Coast residents to pay attention” to the storm, he said.

Stung by criticism of the government’s slow initial response to Hurricane Katrina, President Bush signed an emergency declaration for Florida and spoke with Texas Gov. Rick Perry about planning for the storm’s landfall.

“All up and down the coastline, people are now preparing for what is anticipated to be another significant storm,” Mr. Bush said.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said more than 2,000 Florida National Guard troops and dozens of law-enforcement officers were ready to deal with the storm’s aftermath, although it appeared that the Keys were spared the storm’s full fury.

“I think we did, so far, dodge a bullet,” said Key West Mayor Jimmy Weekley.

Rita started the day as a tropical storm with top sustained winds of 70 mph. But as it cruised through the Florida Straits between the Keys and Cuba, it gathered energy from the warm sea, becoming a Category 2 hurricane with top winds of 105 mph, the National Hurricane Center said.

Mr. Bush received a briefing about Rita aboard the USS Iwo Jima, which is moored near downtown New Orleans, as the hurricane caused new anxiety among Katrina survivors in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

Residents and visitors had been ordered out of the Keys, and voluntary evacuation orders were posted for coastal mainland areas such as Miami Beach. About 58,000 people were evacuated in Cuba, on the southern side of the Florida Straits.

Many of Key West’s shops and bars were boarded up.

“This city was really very well prepared,” said Jim Gilleran, owner of the 801 Bar in the Old Town section of Key West. He kept his business open despite the heavy rain and a power outage.

At 8 p.m., Rita’s eye was about 65 miles west-southwest of Key West. The storm was moving west at 12 mph on a track that kept the most destructive winds at sea, the center said.

Nearly 900 miles from Key West, officials of Galveston were calling for voluntary evacuations, with mandatory evacuations to begin today. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco urged everyone in the southwestern part of the state to prepare to evacuate.

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