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With Rita strengthening, Galveston orders evacuation

Hurricane lashes Florida Keys, spawns tornadoes



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Gulf Coast

GALVESTON, Texas (CNN) -- With Hurricane Rita intensifying as it treks westward through the Gulf of Mexico, the mayor of Galveston declared a state of emergency Tuesday night.

Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas ordered mandatory evacuations of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities starting at 6 a.m. Wednesday.

She also said mandatory evacuations of other parts of the city would begin at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

Galveston -- a city in which about 8,000 people died in a 1900 hurricane -- is about 50 miles southeast of Houston on a barrier island 2 miles wide.

The latest five-day forecast from the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, has the storm making landfall near Galveston late Friday or early Saturday.

But forecasters also said the path of the storm will depend on a high-pressure system over the southern United States. As that system moves east, it will become easier for the storm to turn north.

Rita continued to strengthen as its eye passed through the narrow Straits of Florida between Key West and Cuba and into the warm, open waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

The hurricane center warned that the Category 2 storm could reach Category 4 status by Wednesday afternoon. (Watch fierce wind, huge waves --2:27 )

A Category 4 storm has winds from 131 mph to 155 mph (210 kph to 248 kph) and storm surges from 13 feet to 18 feet (4.3 meters to 6 meters), based on the Saffir-Simpson scale that measures hurricane intensity.

Gov. Rick Perry on Monday recalled Texas National Guard forces in Louisiana assisting Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. The recall affects 1,099 service members, Louisiana officials said.

In New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin postponed a planned return of residents to the city and ordered those who had returned to leave because of the threat posed by Rita.

The commander of the Army Corps of Engineers told CNN that only 40 percent of the pumping stations in New Orleans were working.

"We think something on the line of 3 inches over six hours would probably put 2 to 4 feet of water in the lower-lying sections of the city," said Lt. Gen. Carl Strock. "... The levees also are a concern. They would not stand any kind of significant storm surge."

Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, the federal point man for recovery efforts, said 500 buses were available to take people out of the city, and it was possible commercial jets also would be used to evacuate people.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco urged residents of southwestern Louisiana to be ready to evacuate on short notice.

Because Rita could hit Texas, which already has taken in tens of thousands of Louisiana residents after Katrina, she urged them to go north instead of west. (Full story)

Tuesday night, Blanco sent a letter to President Bush asking him to declare a federal state of emergency.

As of 11 p.m. ET, the storm was centered 95 miles (150 kilometers) west-southwest of Key West and 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Havana, Cuba. (Watch CNN's Jacqui Jeras describe Rita's growing strength -- :59)

A reconnaissance aircraft measured top sustained winds of 110 mph (175 kph).

Rita was moving west and had slowed to about 13 mph (20 kph). Its hurricane-force winds extended out 45 miles (75 kilometers) and tropical storm-force winds extended 140 miles (220 kilometers) from its center into south Florida.

'People are stubborn'

In the Florida Keys, thousands of residents hunkered down as Rita lashed the islands with blinding rain and winds Tuesday afternoon. (Watch high winds and rain pound Florida -- 2:27)

In Key West, many residents took to the streets, some of which were slightly flooded by late afternoon, to see the extent of the storm's fury.

One woman -- dressed in a windbreaker and holding a small dog wearing a life vest -- said she would ride out the storm as she always has.

"I never do evacuate," she said. "I want to be able to get back in and get back to my job. And I work for the Department of Juvenile Justice so I feel like I need to be here."

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush warned residents to stay put. "Now is the time to hunker down. As we say, 'Turn around, don't drown,' " he said. (Watch Gov. Bush warn Florida residents -- 4:05)

Key West Mayor Jim Weekley said about half of the city's residents left ahead of the storm, leaving about 13,000 people in the city.

He said people took the evacuation order more seriously in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, adding that only about 25 percent of the city's residents left in previous hurricanes.

Mandatory evacuation orders were issued Monday for the Keys, but many residents insisted on staying. The evacuation was the fifth ordered for the Keys in the past two years.

"In the Keys, a lot of people are stubborn," said Craig Fugate, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

CNN's Dan Lothian reported from Key Largo that he saw some people still putting up boards on their windows as late as Tuesday morning.

Gov. Bush said more than 1,600 residents of Monroe County, which includes all the Keys, were in shelters elsewhere in Florida. All three hospitals in the county were evacuated, as well as its nursing homes.

A hurricane warning stretched from just south of Florida City in southeast Florida down to East Cape Sable, around the tip of the peninsula and then north to Chokoloskee. All of the Florida Keys are included in the warning.

Hurricane warnings were still in effect for three Cuban provinces, including Havana. CNN's Lucia Newman said more than 58,000 Cubans were evacuated from coastal areas.

CNN's Mike M. Ahlers, Jacqui Jeras, Dan Lothian, Rob Marciano and Shelby Linn contributed to this report.

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