Hurricane Rita gained strength on its way towards the US Gulf Coast and turned into a Category 5 storm Wednesday afternoon, forcing authorities to order the evacuation of more than 1.3 million residents in the region.
The hurricane, with winds up to 165 mph (264 kmp), was forecast to land somewhere along the Texas Gulf Coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi Saturday. Texas Governor Rick Perry has urged residents along the state's entire coast to begin evacuating.
A similar evacuation order was issued in New Orleans of Louisiana, which was battered by Hurricane just three weeks ago leaving 799 people dead as of Wednesday. The total number of death from Katrina along the Gulf Coast rose past 1,000 to 1,037.
Category 5 is the highest on the five-level hurricane intensity scale, and only three Category 5 hurricanes are known to have hit the US mainland.
To prepare for a potential catastrophe as that caused by Katrina, authorities have mobilized an estimated 319,000 National Guard troops nationwide to respond to Rita if needed.
"We hope and pray that Hurricane Rita will not be a devastating storm, but we got to be ready for the worst," said US President George W. Bush on Wednesday, who has declared a state of emergency in Texas and Louisiana.