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Saturday, September 24, 2005 - Rita batters Louisiana, Texas coasts - Sep 24, 2005 - Rita batters Louisiana, Texas coasts - Sep 24, 2005Rita batters Louisiana, Texas coasts
Category 3 storm nears early morning landfall

BEAUMONT, Texas (CNN) -- Hurricane Rita, packing winds of 120 mph, neared the Texas and Louisiana coasts early Saturday, lashing the region with strong winds and heavy rains as its storm surge caused renewed flooding in Katrina-soaked New Orleans.

Forecasters said they expect Rita to make landfall early Saturday along the southwest Louisiana coast and upper Texas coasts as a Category 3 hurricane, with winds of 111 mph to 130 mph.

At 1 a.m. EDT, the National Hurricane Center placed the eye of the storm 40 miles southeast of Sabine Pass, along the state line between Texas and Louisiana. Rita was moving northwest at near 11 mph -- a path it was expected to follow until landfall.

Rita has weakened in intensity from its peak Category 5 status, when the massive storm had maximum sustained winds of 165 mph as it moved through the Gulf of Mexico. But forecasters and officials warned residents to take the storm seriously.

Port Arthur Mayor Oscar Ortiz, whose city is in the direct line of the projected path, said: "I'm afraid we're going to get it real bad."

Nearly everyone in the city of roughly 57,000 has evacuated. Ortiz said he is extremely concerned about Rita moving across Sabine Pass, pushing a large surge of water toward the city.

"If that's true, it will be under water," he said. "I hate to see what my city's getting right now."
Buildings burn in Galveston

In downtown Galveston, video showed heavy smoke and a blizzard of blowing embers as firefighters tried to control large fires in two historic residences and a commercial building, according to CNN's Sean Callebs. One of the buildings was destroyed. It was unclear whether anyone was inside them. (Watch crews fight winds, flames -- 1:15)

Firefighters were hindered by gusty winds of up to 70 mph, which fanned the flames. Callebs said the winds blew off sections of a multi-story downtown hotel.

Ninety percent of the city, where it was raining Friday night, was evacuated in anticipation of Rita, officials said earlier.

In Houston, where more than 2 million people evacuated, creating a traffic nightmare, the streets and highways were largely empty. About the only vehicles on Interstate 10 were a convoy of 18-wheelers carrying aid and other items into the city.

The Houston Astrodome, which only recently served as a shelter for thousands of Katrina evacuees, was being used as a staging ground for first responders, with hundreds of ambulances, fire engines and other emergency vehicles poised to respond to anything the storm brings.

"We are ready for Rita," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, told reporters at a joint news conference with local officials.

State officials said an estimated 2.7 million people evacuated throughout the state -- at times clogging the highways where roads turned into parking lots. (Watch: "A graveyard of getaway vehicles" -- 1:48)

The traffic chaos took a tragic turn early in the day. A bus carrying elderly evacuees from a Houston nursing home caught fire on Interstate 45 near Dallas, killing 24 people when the blaze caused their oxygen canisters to explode. (Full story)

"It's obviously a horrific event," Dallas Mayor Laura Miller said. "We've handled two waves of evacuees now. We've never had anything this horrible happen. So, it's really a tragedy." (Watch law enforcement official explain bus tragedy -- 3:38)

The National Hurricane Center said hurricane-force winds extended about 85 miles from the eye of the storm, and tropical storm-force winds extended about 205 miles from the center. (Watch how warm waters fuel monster storms -- 3:16)
Storm surge fears

At Sea Rim State Park, Texas, a wind gust of 83 mph was reported early Saturday. A gust of 98 mph was recorded at Calcasieu Pass, Louisiana. Forecasters said that once the center of Rita comes ashore, hurricane-force winds are expected to reach more than 100 miles inland.

Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said Friday night that if Rita stays on track, there likely will be 15 feet of storm surge on the coastline to the east, forcing, for example, the Calcasieu River to rise dramatically and overflow into the Lake Charles area.

He also said that just because wind speeds have been moving up and down, that doesn't mean Rita isn't a dangerous threat.

"We don't have to have hurricane-force winds to cause trees to come down and power outages," Mayfield said.

In Louisiana, Gov. Kathleen Blanco -- whose state was savaged by Katrina three weeks ago -- struck a beleaguered note.

"Now, we're getting pummeled by the storm in many regions of the state. Our entire coast has been affected by these two storms," she said.
More flooding in New Orleans

In New Orleans, fears of more flooding came to fruition earlier than expected after the Army Corps of Engineers said an 8-foot storm surge from Rita pushed water over patched levees.

"This nightmare just continues for us," Mayor Ray Nagin told CNN.

He said 3 to 4 feet of water covered the Lower 9th Ward, which suffered massive flooding from Katrina. (Full story)

"Our concern is a storm surge. We really can't take anything more than about a 6- or 7-foot storm surge," Nagin said.

As of 9 p.m., Lake Pontchartrain was experiencing a surge of nearly 6 feet -- a surge that is expected to grow as the night progresses, according to CNN Weather.

The National Hurricane Center said "large swells generated by Rita will likely affect most portions of the Gulf Coast."

It said areas in Rita's direct path could be soaked with 8 to 12 inches of rain, with isolated maximum amounts of 20 inches over southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana as it moves inland.

Rainfall amounts in New Orleans of 3 to 5 inches are possible, with some areas getting more than that, the hurricane center said.

Several refineries, which process about 3 million barrels of oil each day, could be threatened by Rita, but appeared to be in less danger as the storm shifted north. Some energy analysts predict disruption from the storm could trigger a surge in gas prices. (Watch Rita's threat to refineries -- 2:43)

Oil prices closed at $64.19 a barrel Friday -- down more than $2 a barrel -- after Rita lost some of its intensity. At its peak, the storm was a Category 5 with 175 mph winds.

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