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The latest on Rita and Katrina

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Traffic Thursday flows northbound out of Houston in all lanes of Interstate 45.

SPECIAL REPORT

HURRICANE RITA

5 p.m. ET
Location:
155 miles ESE of Galveston, Texas
Latitude: 28.2 North
Longitude: 92.6 West
Movement: Northwest at 12 mph
Winds: 125 mph

RELATED

Check here for the latest information on Hurricane Rita and from the Katrina-stricken Gulf Coast region. Items are time-stamped when entered.

Hurrican Rita has made landfall.

SABINE PASS, La. (CNN) -- With howling winds and driving rain, Hurricane Rita has made landfall along the Gulf Coast, just east of Sabine Pass, on the border between Texas and Louisiana. The center of the storm's eye crossed the coast at 3:40am, EDT. (Posted 3:43 a.m.)

Latest numbers on Hurricane Rita

(CNN) -- Here are the latest numbers as reported by the National Hurricane Center at 3:00 a.m. EDT:

Top wind speed: near 120 mph, with higher gusts

Saffir-Simpson scale status: Category 3 (winds 111-130 mph)

Location of storm center:Rita's eye made landfall just east of Sabine Pass, La. at 3:40 a.m. EDT.

Movement: Northwest at near 11 mph.

Size of storm: Hurricane-force winds extend up to 85 miles from the center, and tropical storm-force winds extend up to 205 miles. Hurricane-force winds are expected to spread inland as far as 100 miles near the path of Rita. At Calcasieu Pass, La., sustained hurricane-force winds of 74 mph were recorded, along with a 112-mph gust. (Updated

Rita close to landfall along Texas-Louisiana line

GALVESTON, Texas (CNN) -- Hurricane Rita, packing winds of 120 mph, prepared to make landfall near the Texas-Louisiana state line early Saturday, lashing the entire coastal region with strong winds and heavy rains as its storm surge caused renewed flooding in Katrina-soaked New Orleans.

The northern eyewall of the Category 3 storm had moved onshore as of about 3 a.m. EDT Saturday, according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm's center was located about 10 miles south-southeast of Sabine Pass, along the state line. It was moving northwest at about 12 mph. A storm is not considered to have made landfall until the center of its eye is onshore.

Rita has weakened in intensity from its peak Category 5 status, when the massive storm had maximum sustained winds of 165 mph as it moved through the Gulf of Mexico. But forecasters and officials warned residents to continue to take the storm seriously. (Posted 3:17 a.m.)

Winds fan flames in Galveston; restaurant wall collapses

GALVESTON, Texas (CNN) -- Winds of up to 70 mph hindered firefighters' efforts to battle flames in downtown Galveston as Hurricane Rita approached land, creating a blizzard of ash and embers along with heavy smoke.

Fire engulfed two historic homes and a commercial building. One of the buildings was destroyed. It was unclear whether anyone was inside, as about 90 percent of Galveston has evacuated because of Rita.

In addition, a restaurant wall collapsed about four blocks from the fire, and winds blew off sections of the roof of a multi-story downtown hotel. (Posted 2:02 a.m.)

Coast Guard rescues pregnant woman, child

(CNN) -- A woman, eight months pregnant, and her 4-year-old son were rescued Friday from their damaged Port Fourchon, La., home as Hurricane Rita approached.

The U.S. Coast Guard said it was their first Rita-related rescue. An air crew from Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans lowered a rescue swimmer from a helicopter and hoisted the mother and son to safety.

In Dulac, La., an Army National Guard ground unit rescued a family after they were spotted by a Coast Guard air crew. (Posted 12:47 a.m.)

Rita takes aim at Texas, Louisiana coasts

HOUSTON (CNN) -- Hurricane Rita, packing winds of 120 mph, began bearing down on the Texas and Louisiana coasts late Friday, lashing the region with strong winds and heavy rains as its storm surge caused renewed flooding in Katrina-soaked New Orleans.

Forecasters said they expect Rita to make landfall early Saturday along the southwest Louisiana coast and upper Texas coasts as a Category 3 hurricane, with winds of 111 mph to 130 mph.

Rita has weakened in intensity from its peak Category 5 status, when the massive storm had maximum sustained winds of 165 mph as it moved through the Gulf of Mexico. But forecasters and officials warned residents to take the storm seriously.

Port Arthur Mayor Oscar Ortiz, whose city is in the direct line of the projected path, said, "I'm afraid we're going to get it real bad." (Posted 10:10 p.m.)

Nagin: 'This nightmare just continues'

NEW ORLEANS (CNN) -- As water continued to pour over patched levees in New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin late Friday told CNN, "This nightmare just continues for us."

He said the city's Lower 9th Ward is inundated by 3 to 4 feet of water. Conditions around the city are expected to worsen throughout the night as Hurricane Rita approaches the Texas-Louisiana coast.

"Our concern is a storm surge. We really can't take anything more than about a 6 or 7 foot storm surge," Nagin said.

Around 9 p.m., Lake Pontchartrain was experiencing a surge of nearly 6 feet -- a surge that is expected to grow as the night progresses, according to CNN Weather. (Posted 9:30 p.m.)

Bush arrives at NorthCom to observe federal response to Rita

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (CNN) -- President Bush arrived at Northern Command Friday to observe the federal response to Hurricane Rita.

Bush had earlier planned to visit search and rescue workers in San Antonio, but that plan was scrapped for fear his presence might slow down response efforts.

The original plan had Bush going to San Antonio before heading to NorthCom. Instead, he went straight to Colorado.

"What I am going to do is observe the relationship between the state and local governments, particularly out in Colorado Springs," he said before his arrival at the facility. "That's what I want to see." (Posted 9:12 p.m.)

White House readies to launch $1 billion Katrina recovery program

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House is in final negotiations over a $1 billion plan to fund non-profit groups' efforts to assist Hurricane Katrina evacuees in relocating until their homes and communities can be rebuilt, sources involved in those negotiations said Friday.

The announcement has been put on hold while Hurricane Rita threatens to hit the Gulf coast. As of yet, the possibility of adding evacuees from Rita to the plan has not been discussed, the sources said.

According to participants involved in the negotiations, the administration on Friday offered to provide more than $1 billion to contract private non-profit voluntary resettlement agencies to help resettle Katrina evacuees.

The nine agencies being considered have experience in helping refugees immigrating into the United States from elsewhere in the world, the sources said. (Posted 8:34 p.m.)

Corps keeping close eye on St. Bernard Parish levee

NEW ORLEANS (CNN) -- An official with the Army Corps of Engineers late Friday said authorities are closely watching the levee system around St. Bernard Parish for fear of possible breaches as Hurricane Rita brings heavy rains, strong winds and a powerful storm surge.

Col. Duane Gapinski with the Corps told CNN the levee along St. Bernard Parish, just east of New Orleans, was severely degraded by Hurricane Katrina three weeks ago and that the area is now relying on its back levees for protection.

"We haven't had any problems yet," he said.

Earlier in the day, water from an 8-foot storm surge poured over two patched levees, flooding New Orleans' largely evacuated 9th Ward. That area had already suffered massive flooding from Katrina. (Posted 7:41 p.m.)

Acting director: 'FEMA is going to be here'

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Friday sought to reassure residents in the sights of Rita that the agency had learned lessons from Katrina.

FEMA was roundly criticized for its slow response in the aftermath of Katrina, eventually leading to the resignation of then-director Michael Brown.

"FEMA is going to be here. We are going to make sure that you get taken care of," FEMA acting director David Paulison said.

He said FEMA has more than 1,300 search-and-rescue personnel stationed in Texas and Louisiana, ready to respond to the storm, and that truckloads of food, water and ice were already there. He added that FEMA officials were in constant contact with state and local officials. (Posted 7:09 p.m.)

Katrina death toll continues to rise

BATON ROUGE, La. (CNN) -- The death toll from Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath now stands at 1,075 -- the third deadliest storm in U.S. history.

The following is the state-by-state breakdown:

-- Louisiana: 841

-- Mississippi: 219

-- Florida: 11

-- Alabama: 2

-- Georgia: 2

(Posted 7:04 p.m.)

Hurricane Rita poses a threat to the economy

By Chris Isidore, CNN/Money senior writer
NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -- Plastics and burgers. Construction and soda cans. Hurricane Rita poses risks to the economy and the nation's businesses far beyond the oil refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.

The hurricane was downgraded Friday to a Category 3 from a more powerful Category 4 storm and no longer appears poised to hit the cities of Galveston and Houston head on. But experts warned that the storm still posed a significant threat to the Texas Gulf Coast and the national economy, even if the worst-case scenarios appear to have faded as the storm approaches.

Energy is still one of the areas most at risk, as about 27 percent of U.S. refining capacity lies between Corpus Christi, Texas, and Lake Charles, Louisiana, the stretch of the coast that could be hit by the storm and surging waters. But hopes that the storm might come in weaker than it first appeared, and without a direct hit at the heart of refinery row, sent energy prices tumbling Friday.

Gasoline futures also sank in active trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. (Posted 4:22 p.m.)

Bush cancels Texas visit, heads to observe federal government response at Northcom

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Fearing his visit might slow down response efforts to Hurricane Rita, President Bush Friday canceled plans to visit search and rescue workers in San Antonio, Texas, and will head directly to the Colorado Springs-based Northern Command.

The Texas teams are preparing to reposition closer to where the storm is projected to make landfall, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

"We didn't want to slow that down," McClellan said.

The visit was scrubbed just minutes before Bush's scheduled departure. He is now slated to depart for Colorado at 4:15 p.m. ET, McClellan said.

Earlier, Bush was briefed in Washington by officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Speaking to reporters on his way out, Bush said his trip was an effort "to understand the relationship that the federal government's role is to support state and local governments."

"I want to watch that happen," Bush told reporters after his FEMA briefing in Washington. (Posted 4:17 p.m.)

New Orleans mayor urges reporters to leave re-flooded areas

NEW ORLEANS (CNN) -- Mayor Ray Nagin Friday urged journalists immediately to leave flooded areas of the city, specifically the 9th Ward, because of safety concerns.

"Flooding due to effects from Hurricane Katrina and Rita could result in structural problems on bridges in these areas," he said in a written statement. "Rising water could also make the location unsafe."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said an 8-foot storm surge from approaching Hurricane Rita caused water to spill over temporarily repaired breaches in the Industrial Canal levee, flooding the 9th Ward and adjacent neighborhoods.

Officials said they believe all residents had evacuated the 9th Ward, which bore the brunt of the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina. (Posted 4:10 p.m.)

Ga. Gov. asks schools to close 2 days to save fuel following Rita's landfall

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue announced Friday he has asked all public schools in Georgia to close Monday and Tuesday of next week to avoid use of gasoline.

Perdue predicted the move would save almost 500,000 gallons of diesel fuel.

This is among other measures the state is taking to conserve fuel as Hurricane Rita barrels toward the Gulf region, threatening oil refinery facilities, he said.

He also said he was asking state employees to work four-day weeks or telecommute, and he asked Georgians not to panic-buy gasoline. (4:10 p.m.)

Galveston, bracing for hurricane, though winds might not be as bad as once feared

GALVESTON, Texas (CNN) -- Galveston officials on Friday said the Texas coastal city are likely to endure Category 1 hurricane-force winds at worst from Hurricane Rita -- serious, but not as bad as had been feared. (Posted: 2:24 p.m.)

New Orleans airport open, but many flights canceled

(CNN) -- The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport said Friday it remains open, though some flights have been canceled as Hurricane Rita approaches the area.

The airport, in a message posted on its Web site, urged travelers to check with their airline before going to the airport. Continental Airlines canceled all of its flights for Friday and Saturday; Southwest Airlines canceled all of its flights for Friday and Saturday; Delta Air Lines canceled all of its flights Friday after 4 p.m. (posted 2:19 p.m.)

Lufkin overwhelmed by refugees from Texas coast

(CNN) -- Evacuees fleeing Houston and other towns to escape Hurricane Rita are overwhelming Lufkin, a Texas town of about 35,000 residents 120 miles north of Houston, officials said.

"We're overwhelmed with folks here," Lee Miller, an emergency services official, told CNN, about the 20,000 evacuees who have rolled into town. "Our shelters are full here."

Lufkin is one of a number of towns -- big and small -- that are destinations for the more than 1 million people fleeing the coastal area of Texas.

One evacuee coordinator told CNN Lufkin has room for only about half the number of people who are seeking shelter there.

Though inland, Lufkin too is in Rita's path, and city officials are "trying to get those people further up into shelters" elsewhere, Miller said.

"We're expecting strong winds here and a lot of rain. So we're also preparing our local citizens and getting them ready also for this storm." (Posted 12:45 p.m.)

New Orleans' 9th Ward floods as storm surge pours over levee earlier than expected

NEW ORLEANS (CNN) -- Water Friday poured through a breached levee protecting New Orleans' 9th Ward, flooding the low-lying but largely empty neighborhood that was devastated last month by Hurricane Katrina.

An 8-foot storm surge from approaching Hurricane Rita overtopped a damaged section of the Industrial Canal levee where the Army Corps of Engineers had made temporary repairs, Brig. Gen. Robert Crear told CNN.

The rushing waters appeared to have pushed aside any sandbags or other temporary barricades that had been placed there to plug the breach.

The 9th Ward had been expected to flood, but not until after Hurricane Rita made landfall, which is expected early Saturday near the Louisiana - Texas border.

"We did not expect this early that we'd get this level of the surge," Crear said. "As you know, the surge was affected by the winds and we expect this to continue for several hours."

Video showed water spilling through the break in the levee, quickly flooding both the 9th Ward and Lower 9th Ward, which are divided by the canal.

The corps will search the 9th Ward neighborhood with boats to make sure no one needs rescue, Lt. Gen. Russel Honore said. Helicopters have been grounded by Hurricane Rita's strengthening winds.

The neighborhood is almost empty, said CNN's Mary Snow, who accompanied a recovery crew Thursday.

Water was overtopping levees at two other locations, but those situations were under control, Col. Rich Wagenaar of the corps told CNN.

The flooding in New Orleans' lower 9th Ward forced a skeleton crew of National Guard soldiers stationed there to evacuate, CNN Photojournalist Alfredo DeLara said.

He reported the water was rising quickly and had reached several feet in some areas.

"We're talking 5 to 10 inches in the one to two minutes we were standing in this one spot," DeLara said. "There's nothing stopping that water from just pouring in." (Posted 12:23 p.m.)

Up to 24 dead in explosion aboard bus carrying elderly evacuees south of Dallas; evacuation route blocked

DALLAS (CNN) -- An explosion and fire aboard a bus carrying elderly evacuees from a Houston area nursing home killed as many as 24 people near Dallas Friday.

Dallas County Sheriff's Sgt. Don Peritz said 14 to 15 other people got off the bus.

"We believe at this point we have 24 souls remaining on the bus," said Peritz.

In Bellaire, Texas, a suburb of Houston, the Brighton Gardens nursing home issued a statement saying, "A charter bus evacuating 38 residents and six team members from Brighton Gardens of Bellaire near Houston, was involved in a tragic incident near Dallas at approximately 6:45 a.m. central time resulting in multiple deaths. We are in the process of contacting family members."

The incident blocked part of Interstate 45 northbound, a major evacuation route for people fleeing Hurricane Rita.

Peritz said the incident appears to have started with a mechanical problem, a brake that caught on fire.

The bus pulled to the side of I-45 and passengers were getting off when a series of explosions occurred.

"We believe the explosions were related to a series of oxygen canisters that were onboard," Peritz said.

Peritz said the driver survived and was attempting to help sheriff's deputies who were getting people off the bus when the explosions occurred.

All that was left of the bus was a charred skeleton. Blue tarps covered the bodies of those who did not get off.

A nurse, Tina Jones, said she was driving behind the bus and saw it start to smoke. When it caught fire, she stopped to help.

"They saw I was a nurse so they waved me on through and asked help to triage patients. I came up to the scene and they were about 14 patients on the service road," said Jones. "Lots of cuts, burns, bruises, smoke ventilation. Lots of people looking for their spouses and friends, wanting to get in touch with family members. A lot of people afraid the person next to them didn't make it off. It was pretty emotional."

Authorities said traffic was being diverted off I-45 south of the accident scene.

At Parkland Hospital in Dallas, where nine of the survivors were taken, one patient was in critical condition with smoke inhalation. A doctor treating the patients said one told him that the bus had stopped and a tire was changed.

He quoted the survivor as saying that a car pulled alongside, signaling to the bus driver that there was smoke around the back wheels and the bus driver then pulled over.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending an investigation team to Dallas to investigate the incident. (Posted 12:01 p.m.)

Texas governor: 'We're gonna get through this'

AUSTIN (CNN) -- With more than 2 million people having fled coastal areas in advance of Hurricane Rita, Texas Gov. Rick Perry told citizens Friday, "We're gonna get through this."

The state has made preparations -- partly the result of "extensive exercises" over the years, he told reporters in Austin. And Perry praised citizens for taking "this evacuation very seriously."

Tens of thousands of motorists trying to get out of the city have been stranded on highways that turned into virtual parking lots. Massive traffic back-ups worsened when some people ran out of fuel and when explosions Friday morning aboard a bus carrying elderly people blocked traffic for miles along a major thoroughfare.

Perry said crews were delivering fuel and trying to relieve the congestion on the roads, and local, state, and federal officials have launched efforts to clear out the areas that may be affected by Rita, which is expected to make landfall Saturday morning.

Motorists have complained the state should have begun contra-flow in certain areas -- reorganizing highways so that all roads lead in one direction -- sooner.

But Perry argued that, when people look back, they will consider it "miraculous" that so many people were moved from endangered areas in a short time. (Posted11:50 a.m.)

Houston airports to halt commercial traffic Friday as Rita nears

HOUSTON (CNN) -- Commercial flights will stop at noon Friday (1p.m.ET) out of Houston's two airports, which have been jammed with people trying to flee the city ahead of Hurricane Rita.

Officials overseeing Houston's George Bush Intercontinental and Hobby airports warned that certain airlines might cease operations earlier.

Roger Smith, a spokesman for the Houston airport system, said Friday the airports "have enough staff today."

A day earlier, long lines of frustrated travelers snaked through Bush Intercontinental after many employees of the Transportation Security Administration did not show up for work. (Posted 9:35 a.m)

Texas National Guard: Two tankers of gas may not be sufficient

HOUSTON (CNN) -- Traffic jams still existed both in and out of Houston on Friday, prompting the Texas National Guard to send two tanker trucks to provide gas to thousands of stranded motorists trying to evacuate as Hurricane Rita approached.

The trucks, each carrying 5,000 gallons of gas, were sent at daybreak to four Houston-area interstates. Because nozzles on the military vehicles were too large to provide fuel to civilians, 1-inch nozzles had to be flown in, said Chief Master Sgt. Gonda Moncada, spokeswoman for the national guard.

She admitted, however, that two tankers may not be sufficient. The national guard plans to give each driver enough gas to reach a gas station, she said, but noted that some stations along evacuation routes are also out of fuel -- and the tankers may not have enough to replenish their supplies. (Posted 6:50 a.m.)

Grand Isle residents evacuating already-devastated community

GRAND ISLE, La. (CNN) -- On the southern edge of Louisiana's Gulf coast, 1,500 residents living on the state's only inhabited barrier -- an area already devastated by Hurricane Katrina -- were forced to evacuate a second time Thursday.

More than 80 percent of the homes on the island were washed away three weeks ago or stripped of their foundations. Now, residents are facing the possibility that Grand Isle could be completely destroyed.

When Katrina slammed into the coast 50 miles to the east, its winds drove 12 to 20 feet of water across Grand Isle, authorities said.

Although Grand Isle isn't in Rita's direct path, the predicted 15- to 20-foot storm surge is expected to cause more severe flooding. (Posted 2:43 a.m.)

NHC: Rita's winds no real threat to New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS (CNN) -- The main threat posed by Hurricane Rita to storm-battered New Orleans is rainfall, not wind, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Although the city remains under a tropical storm warning, "any tropical storm force winds in the New Orleans area are expected to be confined to a few squalls associated with quickly moving rainbands," the center said in its 2 a.m. update Friday.

However, the center says New Orleans could receive 3 to 5 inches of rainfall from Rita if it strikes as projected in Texas. (Posted 2:28 a.m.)

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