Traffic came to a standstill and gas shortages were reported Thursday as hundreds of thousands of people in the Houston metropolitan area rushed to get out of the path of Hurricane Rita, a monster storm with 165 mph winds.
More than 1.3 million residents in Texas and Louisiana were under orders to evacuate to avoid a deadly repeat of Katrina.
The Category 5 storm weakened slightly Thursday morning, and forecasters said it could lose more steam by the time it comes ashore late Friday or early Saturday. But it could still be an extremely dangerous hurricane — one aimed straight at a section of coastline with the nation's biggest concentration of oil refineries.
"Don't follow the example of Katrina and wait. No one will come and get you during the storm," Harris County Judge Robert Eckels said in Houston.
In New Orleans, meanwhile, Rita's outer bands brought the first rain to the city since Rita, raising fears that the patched-up levees could give way and cause a new round of flooding.
Highways leading inland out of Houston were clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic for up to 100 miles north of the city. Gas stations were reported to be running out of gas. Shoppers emptied grocery store shelves of spaghetti, tuna and other nonperishable items. Hotels hundreds of miles inland filled up. Police officers along the highways carried gasoline to help motorists who ran out.
To speed the evacuation out of the nation's fourth-largest city, Gov. Rick Perry ordered a halt to all southbound traffic into Houston along Interstate 45 and took the unprecedented stop of directing the opening all eight lanes to northbound traffic out of the city for 125 miles. I-45 is the primary evacuation route north from Houston and Galveston.
Trazanna Moreno tried to leave Houston for the 225-mile trip to Dallas on U.S. 90 but turned back after getting stuck in traffic.
"We ended up going six miles in two hours and 45 minutes," said Moreno, whose neighborhood is not expected to flood. "It could be that if we ended up stranded in the middle of nowhere that we'd be in a worse position in a car dealing with hurricane-force winds than we would in our house.
With traffic at a dead halt, fathers and sons got out of their cars and played catch on freeway medians. Others stood next to their cars, videotaping the scene, or walked between vehicles, chatting with people along the way. Tow trucks tried to wend their way along the shoulders, pulling stalled cars out of the way.
Hotels hours inland filled up, all the way to the Oklahoma and Arkansas line.
John Decker, 47, decided to board up his home and hunker down because he could not find a hotel room.
"I've been calling since yesterday morning all the way up to about 1 this morning. No vacancies anywhere," he said. "I checked all the way from here to Del Rio to Eagle Pass. I called as far as Lufkin, San Marcos, San Angelo. The only place I didn't call was El Paso. By the time you reach El Paso, it's almost time to turn back."
At 11 a.m. EDT, Rita was centered about 460 miles southeast of Galveston and was moving at near 9 mph. It winds were 165 mph, down slightly from 175 mph earlier in the day. Forecasters predicted it would come ashore somewhere between the Houston-Galveston area and western Louisiana.
Hurricane-force winds extended 85 miles from the center of the storm, and even a slight rightward turn could prove devastating to the Katrina-fractured levees protecting New Orleans. Engineers rushed to fix the city's pumps and fortify its levees.
Forecasters said Rita could be the strongest hurricane on record ever to hit Texas. Only three Category 5 hurricanes, the highest on the scale, are known to have hit the U.S. mainland — most recently, Andrew, which smashed South Florida in 1992.
The U.S. mainland has never been hit by both a Category 4 and a Category 5 in the same season. Katrina came ashore Aug. 29 as a Category 4 hurricane.
Galveston, Corpus Christi and surrounding Nueces County, low-lying parts of Houston, and mostly emptied-out New Orleans were under mandatory evacuation orders as Rita swirled across the Gulf of Mexico, drawing energy with terrifying efficiency from its warm waters.
"It's not worth staying here," said Celia Martinez as she and several relatives finished packing up their homes and pets. "Life is more important than things."
Along the Gulf Coast, federal, state and local officials heeded the bitter lessons of Katrina: Hundreds of buses were dispatched to evacuate the poor. Hospital and nursing home patients were cleared out. And truckloads of water, ice and ready-made meals, and rescue and medical teams were put on standby.
"Now is not a time for warnings. Now is a time for action," Houston Mayor Bill White said.
He added: "There is no good place to put a shelter that could take a direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane. I don't want anybody out there watching this and thinking that somebody is bound to open a local school for me on Friday, not with a hurricane packing these kinds of winds."
Galveston was a virtual ghost town by late Wednesday. The coastal city of 58,000 — situated on an island 8 feet above sea level — was nearly wiped off the map in 1900 when an unnamed hurricane killed between 6,000 and 12,000 in what is still the nation's deadliest natural disaster.
City Manager Steve LeBlanc said the storm surge from Rita could reach 50 feet. Galveston is protected by a nearly 11-mile-long granite seawall 17 feet tall.
"Not a good picture for us," LeBlanc said.
In Houston, the state's largest city and home to the highest concentration of Katrina refugees, geography makes evacuation particularly tricky. While many hurricane-prone cities are right on the coast, Houston is 60 miles inland, so a coastal suburban area of 2 million people must evacuate through a metropolitan area of 4 million people where the freeways are often clogged under the best of circumstances.
Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said buses used to take people and their pets off the island were running in short supply Wednesday and warned that stragglers could be left to fend for themselves.
Meanwhile, the death toll from Katrina passed the 1,000 mark Wednesday in five Gulf Coast states. The body count in Louisiana alone was put at nearly 800, with most of the corpses found in the receding floodwaters of New Orleans.
Crude oil prices rose again on fears that Rita would destroy key oil installations in Texas and the gulf. Hundreds of workers were evacuated from offshore oil rigs. Texas, the heart of U.S. crude production, accounts for 25 percent of the nation's total oil output.
Rita is the 17th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, making this the fourth-busiest season since record-keeping started in 1851. The record is 21 tropical storms in 1933. The hurricane season is not over until Nov. 30.