Southern U.S. prepares for evacuation as Hurricane Rita gains power

Thousands of people in the southern United States were preparing for evacuation Wednesday as Hurricane Rita strengthened to a category 3 storm.

The eye of Rita passed just south of the Florida Keys overnight, producing heavy rains and 85mph winds, before moving into the Gulf of Mexico. It caused some damage along the northern Cuban shore where some 130,000 people were evacuated. Electricity, gas and water services were interrupted around Havana and some streets were flooded.

Rita is now expected to veer northwards and, as it gathers strength from the warm Gulf waters, develop into a category 4 storm with 130mph winds, the same as Hurricane Katrina which devastated large areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama three weeks ago, the AP reports.

Forecasters said Rita will probably strike land on Friday. Texas is seen as the most likely destination, though Louisiana and northern Mexico are also possibilities.

Residents in Galveston, a Texan island town flattened by a hurricane in 1900, started evacuations and officials made plans to move Katrina refugees housed in the Houston area to Arkansas.

The acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), David Paulison, said planes and buses were on hand to evacuate residents in areas where the hurricane might hit. Rescue teams and truckloads of ice, water and prepared meals were being sent to Texas and Florida.

"I strongly urge Gulf coast residents to pay attention" to the storm, he said.

Stung by criticism of the government's slow initial response to Hurricane Katrina, President George Bush, signed an emergency declaration for Florida, where his brother, Jeb, is governor. However, it appeared Rita had largely spared the Keys: at 2 am (0700 BST), Rita's eye was about 145 miles west of Key West and the storm was moving westward at 14 mph.

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