Tropical Storm Rita gains strength as it moves on Florida

Tropical storm Rita is expected to turn into a hurricane as it moves over southern Florida today on a path that would reach Texas and Louisiana late this week.

With maximum sustained winds of 70 mph, Hurricane Rita is close to becoming a Category 1 storm on the five-tier Saffir-Simpson scale. The storm's center was 270 miles south-southeast of Key West, Florida, as of 11 p.m. New York time, the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory on its Web site.

Rita may turn into a hurricane within the next few hours. The storm is forecast to cross over the Florida Keys today and into the Gulf of Mexico tomorrow. Rita will brush against a region already devastated by Hurricane Katrina late last month.

Tropical storm Rita is moving toward the west-northwest at almost 14 mph.

In the meanwhile New Orleans's levees are weak and can't handle more than 9 inches of rain or a 3-foot storm surge, the city's mayor Ray Nagin said at a televised press conference yesterday. The new threat caused by Rita forced him to suspend plans to allow residents to return to their homes and businesses.

U.S. President George W. Bush earlier yesterday warned that Nagin needed to heed the concerns of Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen about Rita and fouled water supplies and general contamination in the city before allowing some 180,000 people back into New Orleans.

The city - once home to a half a million people - was flooded after Katrina's storm surge overwhelmed the system of levees and pumps that held out the waters of Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River.

All 60,000 residents of the Florida Keys have been ordered to leave.

Galveston, Texas, called for a voluntary evacuation starting at 2 p.m. today, Bloomberg reports.

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