Tropical Storm Rita raced toward the Florida Keys and the Gulf of Mexico with forecasters expecting it to strengthen into a hurricane Tuesday, three weeks after Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans and hammered the US Gulf Coast.
All 80,000 residents were ordered out of the Keys on Monday and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez cautioned southern Florida not to dismiss the power of the coming storm.
"Tropical Storm Rita is a serious threat. Do not underestimate this storm," he said. "Stay home. No matter what, we're going to have lousy weather." Schools, many government offices and some businesses were closed Tuesday.
A Louisiana official warned that levees in New Orleans, where hundreds died in Katrina's floods, would fail again if the city were smashed by a new storm surge and the city ordered residents to leave. Oil companies only starting to recover from Katrina began to evacuate Gulf oil rigs.
Private forecasters said there was a 40 per cent chance that damaging hurricane-force winds would directly affect major Gulf energy production areas.
Rita was expected to become a major hurricane Tuesday with sustained winds of at least 111 178 kilometres per hour as it drew strength from warm Gulf waters after passing over or near the Florida Keys Tuesday, the US National Hurricane Centre in Miami said.
Forecasters said Rita, the 17th tropical storm of an exceptionally busy Atlantic hurricane season, was expected likely reach hurricane strength, with winds of 119 kilometres per hour or greater, early Tuesday. Its sustained winds were 110 kilometres per hour.
In another development, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on Monday suspended a plan to bring residents back and told all those now in the stricken city to leave because of fears that Rita could swamp damaged levees and wreak new havoc. Katrina has been blamed for nearly 1,000 deaths in six states, most of them in Louisiana.
A Louisiana emergency preparedness official said the state was planning to move 13,000 Katrina evacuees living in public shelters farther away from the coast and advised people in Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, all devastated by Katrina, to evacuate by this morning.
US President George W. Bush came under fresh attack for his handling of the crisis.
A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll said Bush's job approval had sagged to 40 per cent. Some 41 per cent approved of his handling of the hurricane, while 58 per cent disapproved. Only 35 per cent approved of Bush's handling of the economy.
Source: China Daily