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Louisiana braces for Rita

Governor asks for federal emergency declaration

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KATRINA'S DEATH TOLL

  • Louisiana: 736 deaths
  • Mississippi: 219
  • Florida: 11
  • Alabama: 2
  • Georgia: 2
  • Total: 970

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    New Orleans (Louisiana)
    Texas
    Hurricane Rita

    BATON ROUGE, Louisiana (CNN) -- Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco asked President Bush to declare an emergency for her state Tuesday ahead of Hurricane Rita's arrival somewhere on the Gulf Coast.

    Earlier, Blanco declared a state of emergency for parishes in the southwestern portion of her state and urged residents to be prepared to head north on short notice.

    Rita, a Category 2 storm, continued to strengthen as it entered the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico after it passed through the narrow Straits of Florida between Key West and Cuba. (Watch fierce wind, huge waves --2:27)

    The National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, warned that Rita could reach Category 4 status -- a major hurricane -- by Wednesday afternoon.

    It is projected to make landfall by late Friday or early Saturday between Galveston and Brownsville, Texas, but the center has not ruled out possible hits in Louisiana or northern Mexico. (Full story)

    A Category 4 hurricane has winds from 131 mph to 155 mph and storm surges from 13 feet to 18 feet, according to the Saffir-Simpson scale.

    Hurricane Katrina was a Category 4 storm when it came ashore from the Gulf of Mexico near the Louisiana-Mississippi border three weeks ago. It is blamed for more than 700 deaths in Louisiana and more than 200 in Mississippi.

    Areas still dealing with floodwaters from Katrina could see substantial rain, and low-lying areas in southeast Louisiana could experience flooding.

    In a letter to Bush, Blanco identified the areas that could be affected by Rita as all the coastal parishes, including the Lake Charles, Lafayette and New Orleans metropolitan areas.

    She also included the mid-state Interstate Highway 49 corridor and the northern parishes along Interstate 20 "that are accepting the thousands of citizens evacuating from the areas expecting to be flooded."

    Two busloads of New Orleans residents fled the city from the downtown convention center Tuesday as concerns grew about Rita.

    But New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and other officials emphasized that neither the convention center nor the damaged Superdome would be used as shelters as they were during Katrina.

    The convention center will be turned into an Army field hospital, said Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, commander of federal troops in New Orleans.

    Some 500 buses were standing by to take people out, and contingency plans were being made to use commercial jetliners if necessary, said Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, the federal point man for recovery efforts.

    About 3,000 buses are also available to the state's parishes for evacuations, said Lt. Col. William J. Doran III of the state's Office of Emergency Preparedness. So far, none have been requested.

    State officials and the American Red Cross are looking for additional shelter space north of Interstate 10, which cuts across the southern part of the state. Some 13,000 people are being housed in shelters below I-10, an area considered most vulnerable to a hurricane.

    Military planners were also considering evacuations of U.S. troops and equipment involved in Louisiana's recovery effort.

    The amphibious warships USS Iwo Jima and USS Shreveport have orders to sail from New Orleans Wednesday if Rita stays on course, the U.S. Northern Command said. The Iwo Jima has been functioning as a command center for the city.

    Troops in southeast Louisiana may be repositioned to high-rise parking lots and similar facilities to be able to react should more flooding occur in New Orleans, said Brig. Gen. Joseph "Brod" Veillon. He noted that about 20,000 National Guard troops are involved with recovery.

    Texas authorities have taken steps to fly some Katrina evacuees to shelters in Arkansas. (Full story)

    New Orleans pumped out

    The evacuation efforts came as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declared victory in New Orleans, telling CNN it has pumped as much water from the city as possible. "You have mobility almost throughout the entire city," said spokesman Col. Duane Gapinski.

    Even so, the 350 miles of levees and flood walls that protect the New Orleans area are capable of withstanding only little more than "normal tidal surges" following Katrina, said Dan Hitchings, a corps official in Baton Rouge, (See video on the levees' condition -- 2:09)

    And as far as having a levee system capable of protecting the city from another Category 4 or 5 storm, "we're really talking years," said Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, commander of the corps. (Full story)

    Nagin announced last week that some people would be allowed to return to certain parts of New Orleans, and many began to do so Monday.

    But over the weekend, Allen, Bush and some state officials questioned the wisdom of that move, since most of the city still lacks potable water, electricity and phone service, and residue from the floodwaters poses a health hazard.

    Nagin reversed his order Monday, citing the new threat from Rita. (Full story)

    Looking for more space

    Some 96,000 people displaced by Katrina are staying in shelters across the country, said David Passey, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

    Blanco has asked FEMA to help find more permanent housing for them. Options include the creation of temporary housing communities on church property, trailers, and extended hotel stays.

    Shelters served their initial purpose, Blanco said. But people who have been displaced "need more privacy. They need real communities with vital services," she said.

    Fliers will be handed out Sunday at churches across Louisiana, inviting them to host mobile home communities, said Jerry Jones, a member of Blanco's housing task force.

    The White House announced Tuesday that homeland security adviser Frances Townsend will lead an internal inquiry into the federal response to Katrina. (Full story)

    Bush made a fifth trip to the hurricane-damaged region Tuesday, stopping first in Gulfport, Mississippi. (Full story)

    CNN's Dan Lothian, John Zarrella, Rob Marciano, Barbara Starr, Shelby Lin and Mike M. Ahlers contributed to this report.

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