The latest on Rita and Katrina
KATRINA'S DEATH TOLL
Check here for the latest information on Hurricane Rita and from the Katrina-stricken Gulf Coast region. Items are time-stamped when entered.
Louisiana governor calls for independent probe of Katrina response
(CNN) -- Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco added her voice Wednesday to calls for an independent review of the response to Hurricane Katrina, urging President Bush to name an investigative panel modeled on the 9/11 commission.
"This disaster was of such a magnitude that it will certainly have significant national implications regarding the response to future events such as a natural disaster or a potential terrorist attack," Blanco wrote to Bush in a letter released by her office.
"For these reasons, it is imperative that the investigation into the response to Katrina be comprehensive, probing and non-partisan."
Blanco joined several fellow Democrats at the national level in calling for an independent probe, while the White House has named Bush's White House homeland security adviser, Frances Townsend, to conduct an internal investigation of the administration's response. (Posted: 10 p.m.)
Louisiana sheriff's dept. staves off bankruptcy
(CNN) -- Plaquemines Parish Sheriff I.F. "Jiff" Hingle expressed elation Wednesday after receiving more than $16 million from the state that he said staved off bankruptcy and layoffs for his department.
"We can pay our bills now," Hingle told reporters, whom he thanked for advertising his department's plight and pressuring the state to release the money.
Hingle said Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco gave him the money and told him that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would reimburse the state for the funds.
"It's hard enough doing the job right now, but if you're worried about making payments, it's even harder," Hingle said. "The president and Congress approved this money weeks ago. I don't see why it should take so long to come down the pipeline." (Posted 6:35 p.m.)
Rita now a monster Category 5 storm as it heads for Texas
(CNN) -- For the second time in less than a month, a major hurricane of catastrophic intensity is swirling across the Gulf of Mexico on collision course with the United States, as wary residents of coastal Texas braced for the worst and headed for safer ground.
Hurricane Rita, which is forecast to make landfall Saturday morning, was upgraded to Category 5 status Wednesday afternoon, after measurements taken by reconnaissance aircraft showed its maximum sustained surface winds had reached 165 mph, the National Hurricane Center said.
At 5 p.m. ET, Rita's center was 600 miles east-southeast of Galveston and 700 miles east-southeast of Corpus Christi moving west at 13 mph. Forecasters expect the center of Rita to make landfall Saturday morning, somewhere between Corpus Christi and Galveston. But because of the power and size of the hurricane -- which has a tropical wind field 350 miles wide -- the effects will likely be felt far from the point of landfall.
A hurricane watch was in effect for nearly the entire coast of Texas from Port Mansfield, north of Brownsville, to Cameron, La., just east of the state line. (Posted 5:47 p.m.)
Evacuations ordered for islands, low areas around Corpus Christi
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (CNN) -- Corpus Christi Mayor Henry Garrett said late Wednesday afternoon he had signed mandatory evacuation orders for Padre Island, Mustang Island and low-lying areas of the Texas coastal city ahead of a possible strike by Hurricane Rita.
The Category 5 storm is projected to make landfall early Saturday between Galveston and Corpus Christi.
Garrett told CNN that the 13,000 to 15,000 residents of those areas must leave their homes by 2 p.m. (3 p.m. ET) Thursday.
The mayor said he will sign evacuation orders for the entire Nueces County by 7 p.m. (8 p.m. ET) Wednesday, and those people will have a Thursday evening deadline to leave.
Garrett said he is ordering the evacuations at least a day earlier than he normally would because of the disaster wrought by Katrina, which is blamed for nearly 1,000 deaths. (Posted 5:01 p.m.)
Rita reaches Category 5; top winds at 165 mph
(CNN) -- Hurricane Rita reached Category 5 intensity Wednesday afternoon with maximum sustained winds of 165 mph, the National Hurricane Center said.
The storm is currently out in the Gulf of Mexico well away from land, and is projected to make landfall early Saturday somewhere along the coast of Texas, where evacuations are already under way.
Category 5 hurricanes -- those with winds speeds in excess of 155 mph -- can cause catastrophic damage, including complete building failures, the NHC says. (Posted 4:17 p.m.)
La. sheriff's dept. may declare bankruptcy because of a lack of aid
(CNN) -- Plaquemines Parish Sheriff I.F. "Jiff" Hingle said his department will file for bankruptcy Wednesday and all the sheriff department's staff will be laid off unless he receives immediate federal or state aid.
Two-thirds of Plaquemines Parish in southeastern Louisiana was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Hingle said he decided to get his own trailers to house his staff because the Federal Emergency Management Agency is too slow.
Tuesday night, the sheriff wrote a check for $2.5 million out of the department's bank account -- which only had $23,000 in it -- to reserve 150 trailers for his staff.
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco called Hingle Wednesday to tell him that Regions Bank promised to honor his check, and she would check into aid. (Posted: 3:59 p.m.)
Chertoff says FEMA readying supplies, personnel ahead of Rita
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency is finalizing its preparations to help the regions that may be affected by the oncoming Hurricane Rita, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Wednesday.
"It's really all hands on deck to deal with this storm," he said. "We've now prepositioned or are in the process of prepositioning a lot of supplies. We've got helicopters on standby.
"We're working very closely with the governor and the other state officials to make sure that we are completely connected in terms of their needs and what capabilities they're asking us to bring to the table," Chertoff told CNN's "American Morning."
"We are taking it very seriously and we are leaning as far forward as we can in preparation," he added. (Posted 3:17 p.m.)
Rita carrying 150 mph winds as it heads toward Texas coast
(CNN) -- Hurricane Rita on Wednesday churned over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, gaining in strength with 150 mph winds as residents from Texas and Louisiana braced for a possible Saturday morning landfall.
Rita was upgraded to a Category 4 storm earlier in the day -- the fifth major hurricane of the 2005 season. Forecasters said it is likely to strengthen, but probably will be a Category 4 storm when it sweeps ashore early Saturday between Corpus Christi and Galveston.
Category 4 storms are those with winds of 131 mph to 155 mph. They generally bring a storm surge of 13 to 18 feet.
Around Houston, interstates and highways were already snarled in traffic jams as residents rushed to get out of town ahead of Rita. Steve McCraw, the director of Texas Office of Homeland Security, said the state has planned for 250,000 to take refuge in shelters across the state, but will be able to accommodate more than double that number. (Posted 3:11 p.m.)
Missing children center offers advice to parents as Rita approaches
ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CNN) -- For those who may have to evacuate ahead of storms such as Hurricane Rita, there are simple ways to prepare in the case their family gets separated.
"We recommend that parents take this seriously," said Ernie Allen, the president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
In a Wednesday interview in the group's phone bank room as calls continued to come in about children missing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Allen told CNN thousands of parents didn't have photos of their children with them as they evacuated, robbing them of a valuable tool they could use if the family became separated.
He said there is still time for people evacuating because of Rita -- some of whom are people who previously evacuated in the face of Katrina -- to get photos taken and distributed. Electronic images, sent while phone lines are still operable, may prove crucial putting families back together, Allen said.
"Parents who don't have photos, take digital photos of your children and e-mail it to friends and relatives so we can get photos," he said. "If they are prudent, if they are prepared, we can minimize the disruption later." (Posted 2:54 p.m.)
Military beefing up cell and Internet communications in Louisiana
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the military is installing communications systems in key areas of Louisiana to provide phone and Internet service likely to survive future storms, military officials said.
Katrina largely wiped out communications across the region, hindering military and civilian relief operations.
The system being installed consists of a small military satellite communications terminal on a vehicle that provides a communications path back to a commercial satellite, according to military officials working on the program.
In the initial configuration, it will provide telephone and Internet service to parish and emergency operations officials. A military official familiar with the program said that within a few weeks the military gear will be replaced by a fully commercial system. (Posted 2:36 p.m.)
Former FEMA director will testify in congressional hearings
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The former director of FEMA will testify next week as part of a House committee's probe into the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.
Michael Brown will appear before the committee Tuesday and will testify, in part, about the coordination between the federal, state, and local governments in the response, said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the chair of the House select committee heading the investigation.
Davis said Brown agreed to testify voluntarily and a subpoena was not issued for his appearance.
Critics charge the government and its disaster agency, FEMA, were slow in responding to the devastation in the coastal areas of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. In the fallout, Brown resigned from his post last week. (Posted 1:12 p.m.)
Texas governor urges coastal residents to seek safer ground
AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- Gov. Rick Perry on Wednesday urged residents living in coastal communities along a 250-mile stretch of Texas -- from Corpus Christi to Port Arthur -- to seek safer ground as Hurricane Rita heads for the region.
"It is quite likely it will be a devastating storm," he said. "Now is the time to leave."
The storm is expected to make landfall as a Category 4 storm, Perry said. He urged residents not to wait until the last minute to leave for more secure areas. "Homes and businesses can be rebuilt, lives cannot," he said. (Posted 12:41 p.m.)
Hurricane Rita landfall prediction shifts south
MIAMI (CNN) -- With Hurricane Rita spinning in the Gulf of Mexico as a dangerous Category 4 storm Wednesday, forecasters issued a revised prediction for landfall.
The latest prediction has landfall occurring somewhere between Galveston and Corpus Christie, Texas, sometime early Saturday. The previous prediction had centered on Galveston. The "cone of probability" still covers the entire Texas coast.
Rita, the fifth major hurricane of the 2005 season, has top sustained winds near 140 mph with higher gusts. At 11 a.m., the National Hurricane Center reported Rita's center was 260 miles of Key West, Fla. and 755 miles east-southeast of Corpus Christi, Texas. It was moving toward the west at 13 mph, a motion that was expected to continue for the next 24 hours.
Hurricane-strength winds extended outward up to 45 miles from Rita's center, with tropical storm force winds extending outward to 140 miles, the center said. The hurricane center expects Rita to gather strength and then weakening slightly before the eye makes landfall with winds around 145 mph. (Posted 12:30 p.m.)
Honore says troops' mission in Gulf region could be nearing end stage, depending on Rita
NEW ORLEANS (CNN) -- Lt. Gen. Russel Honore -- the colorful, take-charge leader of the military's Joint Task Force Katrina -- told reporters in Louisiana's capital Wednesday that the military's direct role in helping with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is nearing its end stage, depending on Hurricane Rita.
"We'll be told when we've satisfied our mission. We are approaching that," Honore said from New Orleans' convention center, the site of so much misery in the aftermath of Katrina.
"But Rita has a vote. And we'll see what Lady Rita does," he added, referring to the Category 4 hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico that could deal a peripheral blow to Louisiana, possibly bringing more rain that could threaten New Orleans' levees.
Honore said troops in New Orleans are "still in the first quarter" and have a lot of work to do, but the end may be in sight. "We finished the crisis and response phase," he said. (Posted 12:11 p.m.)
Houston urges many residents to evacuate; businesses asked to close
(CNN) -- Houston Mayor Bill White Wednesday called on residents in areas at risk for storm surge from Hurricane Rita and those living in mobile homes to "begin making their evacuation plans."
White also asked residents to help relocate citizens who cannot evacuate themselves. "There will not be enough government vehicles to go and evacuate everybody in the area and we need the citizens who are the first line of defense ... to do your job and actively look for those who need assistance," White said.
He also asked all employers to require only essential employees to report to work on Thursday and Friday. Houston schools will be closed on those days, he said.
Houston is about 60 miles northwest of Galveston, where the eye of Hurricane Rita is forecast to make landfall early Saturday. Houston is also where many New Orleans residents were transported after Hurricane Katrina struck, flooding the city. (posted 11:03 a.m.)
Governors ask Bush to declare federal state of emergency
(CNN) -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry joined Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco Wednesday in asking President Bush to declare a federal state of emergency ahead of Hurricane Rita.
Blanco asked for the declaration Tuesday, saying an effective response to Hurricane Rita is "beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments."
Blanco declared a state of emergency for parishes in the southwestern portion of her state in case Rita hits closer to the Texas state line. Only Florida has received a federal declaration of a state of emergency as of Wednesday. (Posted 11 a.m.)
Texas, Louisiana prepare for Hurricane Rita
(CNN) -- Hurricane Rita is not expected to make landfall for several days, but as the storm quickly gathers strength in the Gulf of Mexico, Texas and Louisiana officials are taking no chances in their preparations for the storm.
The latest extended forecast from the National Hurricane Center shows Rita -- a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds at 140 mph -- making landfall near Galveston, Texas, early Saturday.
However, the center has not ruled out possible hits at Louisiana or northern Mexico. And the growing storm's effects are sure to be felt far from the eye. (Posted 10:58 a.m.)
New Orleans levee system can't withstand 'any sizable event'
(CNN) -- While New Orleans is not expected to be in the direct path of the storm, even a few inches of rain could prove disastrous.
New Orleans' levee system, badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina three weeks ago, is not able to withstand "any sizable event," according to Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, the commander of the Army Corps of Engineers.
"We think something on the line of three inches over six hours would probably put two to four feet of water in the lower-lying sections of the city," Strock told CNN.
That amount of water could be pumped out of New Orleans in a couple of days, according to Col. Duane Gapinski, in charge of draining New Orleans. (Posted 10:55 a.m.)
U.S. military prepares for Hurricane Rita
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. military started mobilizing Wednesday as Hurricane Rita intensified in the Gulf of Mexico, putting some troops on standby and moving others out of the storm's path.
The Category 4 storm is expected to strike near Galveston, Texas, early Saturday. However, because of the erratic nature of hurricane movements, the forecast "cone of probability" shows the path of the storm could take it south into northern Mexico or north to western Louisiana.
Some 500 Department of Defense personnel have been earmarked to head to wherever the hurricane strikes, if required, in order to get military relief efforts up and running, defense officials said.
Texas officials have asked 20 military helicopters to head to the region to help with the hurricane's aftermath. They have also requested five active duty military communications teams to avoid the communications problems that isolated victims of Hurricane Katrina.
A new military communications system is being installed in Baton Rouge and remote parishes across southeastern Louisiana ahead of Hurricane Rita, to provide access to both telephone communications and the Internet in emergency operation centers. (Posted 10:45 a.m.)
Louisiana death toll near 800 mark, more than 1,000 overall
BATON ROUGE, La. (CNN) -- The death toll in Louisiana due to Hurricane Katrina has risen to 799, according to the state's emergency response medical director.
This brings the overall death toll from the deadly storm to 1,035.
Dr. Louis Cataldie told CNN Wednesday 799 bodies had been recovered in Louisiana.
The following is the state-by-state breakdown:
-- Louisiana: 799
-- Mississippi: 219
-- Florida: 11
-- Alabama: 2
-- Georgia: 2
(Updated 11:49 a.m.)
Hurricane Rita upgraded to a Category 4 storm
MIAMI (CNN) -- After dealing a glancing blow to the Florida Keys as it passed by in the past 24 hours, Hurricane Rita was upgraded to a dangerous Category 4 storm Wednesday -- the fifth major hurricane of the 2005 season.
The storm's sustained winds were measured at 135 mph with higher gusts as it churned through the Gulf of Mexico, gaining strength from the warm waters.
At 8 a.m. ET, the National Hurricane Center reported the center of Rita was 195 miles west of Key West, Fla., and 790 miles east-southeast of Corpus Christi, Texas, and was moving toward the west at 14 mph.
That motion is expected to continue for the next 24 hours. The latest extended forecast from the hurricane center has Rita gathering strength before the eye makes landfall near Galveston, Texas, late Friday or early Saturday. That would place Rita about midway between New Orleans and Brownsville, Texas.
(Posted 9:47 a.m.)
New Orleans launches another evacuation as Rita nears Gulf
NEW ORLEANS (CNN) -- New Orleans began the process of evacuating the few residents who remain in the hurricane-ravaged city Tuesday ahead of a new threat from Hurricane Rita, Mayor Ray Nagin said.
Nagin said he felt better about the city's prospects as Rita moved westward through the Florida Straits, and he said officials at all levels of government were using the lessons learned from Katrina, which is blamed for more than 700 deaths in Louisiana and another 200-plus in Mississippi.
"I think the federal government, the state government and local government are a lot smarter this time around," he said. (Posted 7:50 a.m.)
Corps: New Orleans 'essentially dry'
NEW ORLEANS (CNN) -- The Army Corps of Engineers has pumped as much water from New Orleans as possible and the water that flooded the city from Hurricane Katrina "is essentially out," a spokesman for the Corps told CNN Tuesday night.
"The city is, well it's not dry, but all the surface water is gone," said Army Col. Duane Gapinski. "And recovery can begin in earnest. There's no impediments to traveling."
Mitch Frazier, a spokesman for Gapinski, said later, "The city of New Orleans is essentially dry. We (Corps) are declaring victory."
Frazier said some outlying areas still have water, and there is localized ponding and pooling, but there are no mechanical means to get the city any drier.
However, with Rita churning toward the Gulf of Mexico, officials have said that three inches of rain in New Orleans could cause breaches to patched levees and result in 2 to 4 feet of flooding in the city. (Posted 10:01 p.m.)
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