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Rita batters Louisiana, Texas coasts

Category 3 storm nears early morning landfall

Rita's outer bands are well inland in this satellite infrared image taken Friday at 11:15 p.m. ET.



As of 11 p.m. ET
55 miles southeast of Sabine Pass on the Texas-Louisiana border
Latitude: 29.1 North
Longitude: 93.2 West
Movement: Northwest 12 mph
Winds: 120 mph
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Gulf Coast

BEAUMONT, Texas (CNN) -- Hurricane Rita, its powerful core nearing the Louisiana and Texas coast, began blasting the region with strong winds and rain that will last several days, the director of the National Hurricane Center said Friday night.

"For all practical purposes, [Rita] is already hitting," said Max Mayfield.

Mayfield said forecasters were most concerned about the possibility of storm surges of 18 to 20 feet into Louisiana, portions of which will be on the northeastern side of the eye wall of the Category 3 storm. (Watch how warm waters fuel monster storms -- 3:16)

When asked how long the storm would affect Texas and Louisiana, Mayfield offered a dour prediction.

"I'm afraid we're talking about days," he said. "The immediate concern is the coastline tonight and tomorrow morning, but then after that, for the next four or five days, we need to be very careful about the inland fresh-water flooding."

In downtown Galveston, Texas, video showed heavy smoke and a blizzard of blowing embers as firefighters tried to control large fires in at least two buildings. One of the buildings was destroyed. It was unclear whether anyone was inside them.

Firefighters were hindered by gusty winds of up to 70 mph, which fanned the flames. CNN's Sean Callebs said the winds apparently blew off the roof of a downtown multi-story hotel.

Ninety percent of the city, where it was raining Friday night, was evacuated in anticipation of Rita, officials said earlier.

Steve Rinard, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Lake Charles, Louisiana, told The Associated Press that tornado warnings were "popping up like firecrackers."

Forecasters say Rita will make landfall early Saturday near Port Arthur, Texas. The city of about 58,000 people is home to a port and several oil refineries and chemical plants, according to the chamber of commerce's Web site.

Port Arthur Mayor Oscar Ortiz said most of the residents had fled, but "I'm afraid we're going to get it real bad."

Ortiz said he was concerned about Rita moving across Sabine Pass -- where Sabine Lake, a salt water estuary on the Texas-Louisiana border, flows into the Gulf of Mexico -- and pushing a large surge of water toward the city.

"If that's true, it will be underwater," he said.

The 11 p.m. ET advisory from the National Hurricane Center placed Rita's center in the Gulf of Mexico about 55 miles (90 kilometers) southeast of Sabine Pass. It was moving northwest at about 12 mph (19 kph).

The storm's maximum sustained winds were 120 mph (193 kph), the hurricane center said.

A hurricane warning was in effect from Sargent, Texas, to Morgan City, Louisiana, meaning hurricane conditions such as sustained winds of at least 74 mph (118 kph) are possible within 24 hours.

Flooding in New Orleans

New Orleans, Louisiana, also was feeling the storm's effects, with water pouring over a key levee into the 9th Ward neighborhood, still almost empty after Hurricane Katrina's flooding.

"It's spreading rapidly down to the south-southeast, so they're going to have complete flooding in that area again," said Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell, commander of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, following a tour of the area Friday.

Caldwell, whose troops are aiding the relief effort, said floodwater had spread across 30 to 40 city blocks by noon.

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. (Full story)

The levee system that protects the city was breached when Katrina came through August 29. More than 1,000 deaths along the Gulf Coast have been blamed on Katrina, most of them in Louisiana.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry told reporters more than 2 million people in his state had evacuated, and he assured citizens that "we're going to get through this."

A bus carrying about 45 elderly evacuees burst into flames on Interstate 45 south of Dallas, killing as many as 24 people. It pulled over and people were getting off when a series of explosions ripped through the bus, said Dallas County Sheriff's Sgt. Don Peritz. (Watch law enforcement official explain bus tragedy -- 3:38)

Peritz said the fire was believed to have started in the bus's brake system and may have caused oxygen canisters on the bus to explode. (Full story)

Bush surveys effort from Colorado

Fearing his visit might slow response efforts to Hurricane Rita, President Bush canceled plans Friday to visit search and rescue workers in San Antonio, Texas, the White House said.

The president instead visited the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado, which is supporting federal disaster relief efforts. Earlier, Bush stopped at the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters in Washington. (Full story)

The acting director of FEMA sought to reassure the nation that the agency learned lessons from Katrina.

David Paulison told reporters the agency was working round the clock to coordinate relief efforts with local and state governments to meet their needs.

He said 17 urban search and rescue teams comprising 900 people were already in Texas; another 400 rescuers were standing by in Louisiana.

He urged residents to heed the advice of local authorities.

"I know how difficult it's going to be after the storm. It's going to be a few days before the first responders can get in there," Paulison said. "So, please stay where you are, stay in a safe location and do not return to your home until authorities say it's safe to do so."

As skies darkened, authorities told residents who had not fled to look instead for secure shelter. "We're telling people to stay in place," said Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt.

The Houston Astrodome, recently a shelter for thousands of Katrina evacuees, was being used Friday as a staging ground for first responders, with hundreds of ambulances, fire engines and other emergency vehicles set to respond to anything the storm brings.

Near Lufkin, Texas, many evacuees were stranded on the side of the road, stuck without fuel and unsure what to do next.

Jennice Hall told CNN she and 11 other family members in three cars may have to ride out the storm in their vehicles if relatives from north Texas don't reach them in time.

Several refineries, which process about 3 million barrels of oil each day, could be threatened by Rita, but appeared to be in less danger as the storm shifted north. Some energy analysts predict disruption from the storm could trigger a surge in gas prices. (Watch Rita's threat to refineries -- 2:43)

Oil prices closed at $64.19 a barrel Friday -- down more than $2 a barrel -- after Rita lost some of its intensity. At its peak, the storm was a Category 5 with 175 mph winds. (Full story)

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