Hurricane Rita Escalates, Expected Landfall on Thursday or Friday

Hurricane Rita strengthened to a category 3 storm early this morning, with maximum sustained winds being measured at 120 mph.

The fifth major hurricane of the 2005 season, Rita could possibly reach level 4 – the same level that Katrina made landfall at on Aug. 29 – by later today, according to National Hurricane Center forecasters.

“The forecast is favorable for further intensification," Michelle Mainelli, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center told the Associated Press.

Rita is predicted to make landfall near Galveston, Texas, with winds possibly increasing to 145 mph, according to CNN meteorologist Chad Myers.

A state of emergency was declared in Galveston on Tuesday night by Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas who ordered mandatory evacuations of nursing homes and similar facilities beginning today at 6 a.m.

Authorities told the Associated Press they would not forcibly remove anyone from their homes, but Thomas warned residents, saying, “If they don’t want to leave, they are staying here at their own risk.”

While not under Hurricane watch, Katrina-ravaged New Orleans also began evacuating the city’s few remaining residents on Tuesday.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco asked President Bush to declare a state of emergency ahead of the storm, saying an effective response to Hurricane Rita is “beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments.”

Bush was briefed about Rita yesterday while aboard the USS Iwo Jima, docked near downtown New Orleans, responding afterwards with the signing of an emergency declaration for Florida that will help supplement state and local response efforts with Federal Aid.

The order also authorized the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA to coordinate all disaster relief efforts, “which have the purpose of alleviating the hardship and suffering caused by the emergency on the local population.”

A tropical storm warning is still in effect for the Florida Keys as of this morning.

Bush's other actions included speaking with Texas Gov. Rick Perry about planning for Rita’s landfall as well as readying Federal relief workers in the Gulf Coast region for, “yet another significant storm,” according to a statement released by the White House.

Numerous volunteer organizations are also preparing themselves to respond to Rita.

Jim Burton, director of volunteer mobilization at the North American Mission Board, the parent organization for Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, says that getting ready for Rita is going to be a stretch.

“We are already engaged in the largest natural disaster in recent U.S. history,” Burton told the Baptist Press. “To now gear up for another hurricane when there is so much more work to do in the Gulf….that’s going to be tough, [but] we have the capacity to respond to both.”

The Salvation Army released a statement on Monday saying that they are confident of their abilities to effectively respond to, “any need Rita might impose on the Texas coast,” and have placed personnel on standby for immediate deployment.

“With much of our equipment and personnel still serving in the areas affected by Katrina we are having to look carefully at our available resources,” said Captain John Birks, Texas Divisional Secretary for Disaster. “We have approximately 18 mobile feeding units we will stage in a location ready to respond. We won’t know that location though until later this week as we watch the projections for landfall.”

In addition to being Christian organizations, the Salvation Army and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief are also two of the three largest disaster relief operations in the country.