Hurricane Rita strengthens, aims at Texas

Hurricane Rita took aim at Texas as it grew into a powerful Category 4 storm on Wednesday, and authorities urged residents of Houston and most of the state's coastline to evacuate.

"We hope and pray that Hurricane Rita will not be a devastating storm, but we've got to be ready for the worst," said U.S. President George W. Bush, who was heavily criticized for an ill-prepared federal response to Katrina.

Rita's winds increased to 140 mph (225 kph) as it headed into the Gulf of Mexico after lashing the Florida Keys on Tuesday. The storm did little damage to the vulnerable Florida islands.

The upgrade put Rita in the same strength classification as Hurricane Katrina, which devastated parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama last month and killed at least 1,037 people. Markets reacted immediately, with the prospect of more destruction and oil-supply interruptions affecting everything from stocks and the dollar to oil prices.

Rita could reach the maximum Category 5 in the central Gulf then weaken slightly as it moved west, the National Hurricane Center said. It was expected to make landfall by Saturday "as a major hurricane ... at least Category 3," the center forecast.

Rita's most likely future track would take it to the Texas coast by the end of the week, hitting southwest of Galveston, where in 1900 at least 8,000 people died in the deadliest U.S. hurricane. Galveston began evacuating residents on Tuesday.

Further inland, Houston Mayor Bill White ordered a mandatory evacuation of residents in areas prone to storm surges or major floods. Texas Gov. Rick Perry urged residents along most of the state's coastline, from the Louisiana border almost to Mexico, to leave.

"Homes and businesses can be rebuilt. Lives cannot. If you're on the coast between Beaumont and Corpus Christi, now's the time to leave," Perry said. He said nursing home residents already were being evacuated, Reuters reports.

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