The US Gulf Coast, which had been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina last month, is again under hurricane threat as Hurricane Rita could possibly hit the region in the coming days.
At 8:00 a.m. Tuesday, the center of Rita was at about 160 km east of Key West, a US city in the island chain off the Florida peninsula with sustained winds of 120 kph.
Rita, upgraded to hurricane early Tuesday, is the ninth hurricane of the 2005 Atlantic season starting June 1.
According to latest reports of the Miami-based National Hurricane Center, Rita will move northwest to the US Gulf Coast region and it could finally become a major hurricane with sustained winds up to 178 kph.
Hurricane warnings were issued for much of the tip of southern Florida, including the island chain of Florida Keys and US authorities had ordered the evacuation of parts of Miami and nearby islands.
All residents had been ordered to out of the Florida Keys on Monday and Florida Governor Jeb Bush warned the 5 million people living in metropolitan Miami to take precautions.
The governor also urged his brother US President George W. Bush to declare a state of emergency that will free federal relief funds to his state.
He said some 2,400 National Guardsmen were called up to support emergency operations while another 8,000 were available.
In Miami, residents packed supermarkets to stock up on food, and long lines formed outside gas stations.
In Key West, Mayor Jim Weekley told reporters Monday evening that half of the city's residents had left while the rest, about 13,000 people, chose to hide inside their homes.
In New Orleans, Louisiana, a city that had been nearly totally submerged by flood waters caused by Hurricane Katrina, Mayor Ray Nagin postponed a planned return of residents to the city and ordered those who had already returned to leave because of the threat of Rita.
Some people also warned that levees in New Orleans where hundreds died in Katrina's floods, could fall again if the city is smashed by a new water surge caused by Rita.
Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco urged residents living in southeastern parts of the state to be ready to evacuate on short notice.
In Galveston, Texas, a city once flattened by a hurricane in 1900, local authorities was planning a voluntary evacuation.
The likelihood of Rita also sent world crude prices surging again, with New York's crude oil price up 7 percent at 67.39 US dollars per barrel by Monday's closing.
So far this year, two hurricanes have made landfall on US soil, namely Dennis and Katrina. The latter has become one of the worst natural disasters throughout US history and nearly 1,000 people have been confirmed dead so far.