Rita Swells to Third Largest Hurricane in History; Over 1 Million Evacuated

Having moved from a Category 4 storm to Category 5 in a matter of hours yesterday, Hurricane Rita has swelled into the third most intense hurricane on record in the Atlantic Basin.

Rita, whose winds are now measured at 175 mph, was called “potentially catastrophic” by the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in its latest advisory.

Max Mayfield, director of the NHC, said Rita could be even more damaging than Katrina.

"This is a very, very dangerous hurricane,” Mayfield told CNN.

Katrina, which at one point became a Category 5 storm, lessened to a Category 4 before hitting the Gulf Coast region on Aug. 29.

Over 1,000 deaths have been attributed to Katrina so far, with officials continuing to search for bodies within the devastated region.

Rita, which is moving towards U.S. mainland at about 9 mph, is expected to make landfall near Corpus Christi, Texas on Saturday.

Over 1.3 million residents have been evacuated so far from the coastal regions of Texas and Louisiana, some even being airlifted out of the area by government vehicles.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry warned remaining residents not to wait until Thursday or Friday to leave.

“Homes and businesses can be rebuilt. Lives cannot,” he said.

In Houston, where freeways are often clogged, Mayor Bill White has asked residents to offer transportation to those in need.

“There will not be enough government vehicles to go and evacuate everybody in every area,” he said. “We need neighbor caring for neighbor.”

Galveston, Texas Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas was pleased at the cooperation of her city’s evacuees, who began their move on Tuesday.

"We're a sandbar, and storm-ridden fairly often," Galveston told CNN. "This is the first time people have responded the way they have."

Almost 20,000 Louisiana residents along the Louisiana coast were also evacuated.

President Bush declared yesterday states of emergency in Texas and Louisiana, allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to oversee relief efforts in the states.

"I urge the citizens to listen carefully to the instructions provided by state and local authorities, and follow them," Bush said during a speech in Washington. "We hope and pray that Hurricane Rita will not be a devastating storm, but we've got to be ready for the worst."

Hundreds of truckloads of water, ice, and ready-made meals have already been dispatched to locations in Rita’s path, with medical assistance and search and rescue teams also on call.

Over 300,000 National Guard troops nationwide have also been called to action, including marines and elements of the 82nd Airborne Division.

R. David Paulison, the acting director of FEMA has also asked the Defense Department for six-heavy lift helicopters, a 2,500 bed hospital system, a food kitchen to serve at least 500,000 meals and equipment to bridge impassable, flooded roads.

"The most important thing that we're doing is work with the Department of Defense to use their assets up front before the storm instead of waiting until after the storm lands," Paulison told the Washington Post.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was confident about the government’s preparations for Rita.

“I think we’re going to be ready when it does hit land,” said Chertoff, who added that Homeland Security has been “reloading” their resources since Katrina.

Numerous volunteer organizations are also gearing up for Rita’s impact.

Jim Burton, director of volunteer mobilization at the North American Mission Board, the parent organization for Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, says that preparing 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.”

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