Hospital and nursing home patients were evacuated and as many as 1 million other people were ordered to clear out along the Gulf Coast on Wednesday as Hurricane Rita intensified into a Category 5 storm with 165 mph winds that could batter Texas and bring more misery to New Orleans by week's end.
Galveston, vulnerable parts of Houston and a mostly emptied-out New Orleans were under mandatory evacuation orders, one day after Rita sideswiped the Florida Keys as a Category 2 storm and caused minor damage.
Having seen what Hurricane Katrina did just three weeks ago, many people were not taking chances.
"After this killer in New Orleans, Katrina, I just cannot fathom staying," 59-year-old Ldyyan Jean Jocque said before sunrise as she waited for an evacuation bus outside the Galveston Community Center. She had packed her Bible, some music and clothes into plastic bags and loaded her dog into a pet carrier.
The federal government was eager to show it, too, had learned its lesson after being criticized for its sluggish response to Katrina. It rushed hundreds of truckloads of water, ice and ready-made meals to the Gulf Coast and put rescue and medical teams on standby.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff urged residents in the threatened areas to get out.
"You can't play around with this storm," he said on ABC's "Good Morning America." He added: "The lesson is that when the storm hits, the best place to be is to be out of the path of the storm."
At 3 p.m., Rita was declared a Category 5 storm, and forecasters predicted it would come ashore Saturday somewhere along the central Texas Gulf Coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi.
Galveston County, population 267,000, was ordered evacuated, along with low-lying, flood-prone areas of Houston, which at its lowest point is 6 feet above sea level. As many as 1 million people in the Houston-Galveston area were under orders to get out by daybreak Thursday, said Frank Michel, spokesman for Houston Mayor Bill White. Houston, Texas' biggest city, is about 50 miles northwest of Galveston.
Other areas told to evacuate included Cameron Parish, in Louisiana's southwestern corner, with 9,700 residents.
Galveston, situated on a coastal island 8 feet above sea level, was the site of one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history: an unnamed hurricane in 1900 that killed between 6,000 and 12,000 people and practically wiped the city off the map.
The last major hurricane to strike Texas was Alicia in 1983, which flooded downtown Houston, spawned 22 tornadoes and left 21 people dead. The damage from the Category 3 storm was put at more than $2 billion. Tropical Storm Allison flooded Houston in 2001, doing major damage to hospital and research centers and killing 23 people.
The Houston area's geography makes evacuation particularly tricky. While many hurricane-prone cities are right on the coast, Houston is 60 miles inland, so a coastal suburban area of 2 million people must evacuate through a metropolitan area of 4 million people where the freeways are often clogged under the best of circumstances.
"Let's hope that the hurricane does not hit at a Category 4 strength and let's hope the lessons we've learned the painful, tragic lessons that have been learned in the last few weeks will best prepare us for what could happen with Rita," Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu said in New York.
The death toll from Katrina along the Gulf Coast climbed past 1,000 Wednesday to 1,036. The body count in Lousiana alone was put at 799 by the state Health Department.
In New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers raced to patch the city's fractured levee system for fear the additional rain from Rita could swamp the walls and flood the city all over again. The Corps said New Orleans' levees can only handle up to 6 inches of rain and a storm surge of 10 to 12 feet.
"The protection is very tenuous at best," said Dave Wurtzel, a Corps official handling some of the repairs.
Engineers and contractors drove a massive metal barrier across the 17th Street Canal bed to prevent a storm surge from Lake Pontchartrain from swamping New Orleans again, and worked around the clock to repair the damaged pumps, concrete floodwalls, earthen berms and channels that protect the below-sea-level city.
In addition, the corps had 800 giant sandbags of 6,000 to 15,000 pounds each on hand, and ordered 2,500 more to shore up low spots and plug any new breaches.
The federal government's top official in the city, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, said the preparations in and around New Orleans included 500 buses for evacuation, and enough water and military meals for 500,000 people.
Buses stood by at the city's convention center to evacuate the 400 to 500 residents Mayor Ray Nagin estimated were left in the main part of the city, on the east bank of the Mississippi River. Two busloads left on Tuesday. But almost no one showed up Wednesday morning.
"The majority of people who are back in the city came with their own vehicle. We expect them to go out in their own vehicle," said Spc. Amber Mangham, a military police officer at the convention center.
The evacuation order meant that for the second time in 3 1/2 weeks, many New Orleans residents were forced to decide whether to stay or go. Also, many Katrina victims still in shelters faced the prospect of being uprooted again. At the Cajun Dome in Lafayette, emergency officials arranged to take the 1,000 refugees from the New Orleans area out on buses if Rita tracks north.
"It's pretty sad. We came home to find out half the neighborhood burned down. Now we have to leave again," said 25-year-old Darryl Robichaux of New Orleans. "No telling what we'll find when we finally get back again."
Along the Texas Gulf Coast, authorities rushed to get the old and infirm out of harm's way, three weeks after scores of sick and elderly nursing home patients in the New Orleans area drowned in Katrina's floodwaters or died in the stifling heat while waiting to be rescued.
In Galveston, the Edgewater Retirement Community, a six-story building situated near the city's seawall, began evacuating its more than 200 nursing home patients and retirees by bus and ambulance.
"They either go with a family member or they go with us, but this building is not safe sitting on the seawall with a major hurricane coming," said David Hastings, executive director. "I have had several say, `I don't want to go,' and I said, `I'm sorry, you're going.'"
Nearby at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, the hospital discharged 200 patients healthy enough to go home and evacuated others by helicopter, ambulance and buses.
"There are going to be some people who are too sick to evacuate and we are going to keep them here," said spokeswoman Jennifer Reynolds-Sanchez.
About 80 buses began leaving Galveston beginning at midmorning, bound for shelters 100 miles north in Huntsville. Dozens of people lined up, carrying pillows, bags and coolers, to board one of several yellow school buses in the city of 58,000.
"The real lesson (from Katrina) that I think the citizens learned is that the people in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi did not leave in time," said Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas. "We've always asked people to leave earlier, but because of Katrina, they are now listening to us and they're leaving as we say."
Crude oil prices rose again on fears that Rita would smash into key oil isntallations in Texas and the Gulf of Mexico. Hundreds of workers were evacuated from offshore oil rigs. Texas, the heart of U.S. crude production, accounts for 25 percent of the nation's total oil output.
As Rita stormed away from Florida, thousands of residents who evacuated the Keys began returning on Wednesday. There were reports of flooding and power outages, but U.S. 1, the highway that connects the islands, was passable, the Florida Highway Patrol said.
"It was fairly nothing," said Gary Wood, who owns a bar in Marathon, about 45 miles northeast of Key West. "It came through and had a good stiff wind, but that was about it."
Rita is the 17th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, making this the fourth-busiest season since record-keeping started in 1851. The record is 21 tropical storms in 1933. Counting Rita, seven hurricanes have hit or passed near Florida in the past 13 1/2 months.