Galveston, Texas Picking up strength with frightening speed, Hurricane Rita swirled toward the Gulf Coast a Category 5, 175-mph monster Wednesday as more than 1.3 million people in Texas and Louisiana were sent packing on orders from authorities who learned a bitter lesson from Katrina.
"It's scary. It's really scary," Shalonda Dunn said as she and her 5- and 9-year-old daughters waited to board a bus arranged by emergency authorities in Galveston. "I'm glad we've got the opportunity to leave. ... You never know what can happen."
With Rita projected to hit Texas by Saturday, Gov. Rick Perry urged residents along the state's entire coast to begin evacuating. And New Orleans braced for the possibility that the storm could swamp the misery-stricken city all over again.
Galveston, low-lying parts of Corpus Christi and Houston, and mostly emptied-out New Orleans were under mandatory evacuation orders as Rita sideswiped the Florida Keys and began drawing energy with terrifying efficiency from the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Highest on scale
Forecasters said Rita could be the most intense hurricane on record ever to hit Texas, and easily one of the most powerful ever to plow into the U.S. mainland. Category 5 is the highest on the scale, and only three Category 5 hurricanes are known to have hit the U.S. mainland - most recently, Andrew, which smashed South Florida in 1992.
Government officials eager to show they had learned their lessons from the sluggish response to Katrina sent in hundreds of buses to evacuate the poor, moved out hospital and nursing home patients, dispatched truckloads of water, ice and ready-made meals, and put rescue and medical teams on standby. An Army general in Texas was told to be ready to assume control of a military task force in Rita's wake.
"We hope and pray that Hurricane Rita will not be a devastating storm, but we've got to be ready for the worst," President Bush said in Washington.
By Wednesday evening, Rita was centered about 580 miles east-southeast of Galveston and was moving west 13 mph. Forecasters predicted it would come ashore along the central Texas coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi.
But with its breathtaking size - tropical storm-force winds extending 350 miles across - practically the entire western end of the U.S. Gulf Coast was in peril, and even a slight rightward turn could prove devastating to the fractured levees protecting New Orleans.
In the Galveston-Houston-Corpus Christi area, about 1.3 million people were under orders to get out, in addition to 20,000 or more along with the Louisiana coast. Special attention was given to hospitals and nursing homes, three weeks after scores of sick and elderly patients in the New Orleans area drowned in Katrina's floodwaters or died in the stifling heat while waiting to be rescued.
Military personnel in South Texas started moving north, too. Schools, businesses and universities were also shut down. Some sporting events were canceled.
Galveston was a virtual ghost town by mid-afternoon Wednesday. In neighborhoods throughout the island city, the few people left were packing the last of their valuables and getting ready to head north.
Helicopters, ambulances and buses were used to evacuate 200 patients from Galveston's only hospital. And at the Edgewater Retirement Community, a six-story building near the city's seawall, 200 elderly residents were not given a choice.
"They either go with a family member or they go with us, but this building is not safe sitting on the seawall with a major hurricane coming," said David Hastings, executive director. "I have had several say, 'I don't want to go,' and I said, 'I'm sorry, you're going."'
Deadly 1900 hurricane
Galveston, a city of 58,000 on a coastal island 8 feet above sea level, was the site of one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history: an unnamed hurricane in 1900 that killed between 6,000 and 12,000 people and practically wiped the city off the map.
The last major hurricane to strike the Houston area was Category-3 Alicia in 1983. It flooded downtown Houston, spawned 22 tornadoes and left 21 people dead.
In Houston, the state's largest city and home to the highest concentration of Katrina refugees, the area's geography makes evacuation particularly tricky. While many hurricane-prone cities are right on the coast, Houston is 60 miles inland, so a coastal suburban area of 2 million people must evacuate through a metropolitan area of 4 million people where the freeways are often clogged under the best of circumstances.
Mayor Bill White urged residents to look out for more than themselves.
"There will not be enough government vehicles to go and evacuate everybody in every area," he said. "We need neighbor caring for neighbor."
Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt issued a stern warning to anyone staying behind that looting would not be tolerated and anyone caught stealing after the storm would be prosecuted.
At the Galveston Community Center, where 1,500 evacuees had been put on school buses to points inland, another lesson from Katrina was put into practice: To overcome the reluctance of people to evacuate without their pets, they were allowed to bring them along in crates.
"It was quite a sight," Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said. "We were able to put people on with their dog crates, their cat crates, their shopping carts. It went very well."
But Thomas warned late Wednesday that the city was nearly out of buses. She said those left on the island will have to find a way off or face riding out a storm that is "big enough to destroy part of the island, if not a great part of the county."
City Manager Steve LeBlanc said the storm surge could reach 50 feet. Galveston is protected by a seawall that is only 17 feet tall. More than 180 police officers were expected to stay behind to guard the city, along with 117 firefighters.
Rita approached as the death toll from Katrina passed the 1,000 mark - to 1,036 - in five Gulf Coast states. The body count in Louisiana alone was put at 799, most found in the receding floodwaters of New Orleans.
New Orleans' levees
The Army Corps of Engineers raced to fortify the city's patched-up levees for fear the additional rain could swamp the walls and flood the city all over again. The Corps said New Orleans' levees can only handle up to 6 inches of rain and a storm surge of 10 to 12 feet.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin estimated only 400 to 500 people remained in the vulnerable east bank areas of the city. They, too, were ordered to evacuate. But only a few people lined up for the evacuation buses provided. Most of the people still in the city were believed to have their own cars.
"I don't think I can stay for another storm," said Keith Price, a nurse at New Orleans' University Hospital who stayed through Katrina and had to wade to safety through chest-deep water. "Until you are actually in that water, you really don't know how frightening it is."
Rita also forced some Katrina refugees to flee a hurricane for the second time in 3 1/2 weeks. More than 1,000 refugees who had been living in the civic center in Lake Charles, near the Texas state line, were being bused to shelters farther north.
"We all have to go along with the system right now, until things get better," said Ralph Russell, of the New Orleans suburb of Harvey. "I just hope it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing."
Crude oil prices rose again on fears that Rita would smash into key oil installations in Texas and the gulf. Hundreds of workers were evacuated from offshore oil rigs. Texas, the heart of U.S. crude production, accounts for 25 percent of the nation's total oil output.
Rita is the 17th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, making this the fourth-busiest season since record-keeping started in 1851. The record is 21 tropical storms in 1933. The hurricane season is not over until Nov. 30.