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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

One Million Evacuate Gulf as Rita Approaches

GALVESTON, Texas -- Cars clogged Texas highways with more than 1 million people fleeing Hurricane Rita on Thursday as the Category 5 storm roared through the Gulf of Mexico on a potentially catastrophic course.

Heavy traffic jammed highways from Corpus Christi, in southern Texas, into Louisiana as coastal residents, heeding the lessons of Hurricane Katrina, headed inland to escape what has become one of the most intense storms on record.

The National Hurricane Center said the path of Rita, with top winds dropping slightly to 265 kilometers per hour, had shifted toward the north. It appeared to be headed toward Galveston and Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city and center of the U.S. oil industry.

As Rita neared, ExxonMobil said it was closing its biggest U.S. oil refinery in Baytown, Texas, and another in Beaumont, 144 kilometers east.

The closings, combined with earlier shutdowns due to Rita and Katrina three weeks ago, raised to at least 12 the number of U.S. refineries out of commission. Together, they had nearly 20 percent of U.S. refining capacity, raising the specter of serious gasoline shortages in the days ahead.

A hurricane warning was in effect from Port O'Connor, Texas, to Morgan City, Louisiana.

Rita was expected to lose a little steam as it neared land, but was still forecast to hit Texas as no less than a Category 3 storm, with winds of up to 209 kilometers per hour.

"It's not a good picture for us at this point," said a grim Galveston city manager Steve LeBlanc. "We're in for a historic storm."

Weather forecasters told Galveston officials to expect Gulf waters to surge over a 5-meter seawall that protects the island city, he said. The seawall was constructed after a 1900 hurricane that killed 8,000 people in the worst U.S. natural disaster.

Houston, headquarters to many large energy firms, was expecting flooding from a storm surge in Galveston Bay and up to 45 centimeters of rain, weather forecasters said.

As of late morning, Rita's center was about 740 kilometers southeast of Galveston and 715 kilometers southeast of Port Arthur with hurricane-force winds that extended 110 kilometers from its center. The storm was moving west-northwest at about 15 kilometers per hour, the hurricane center said.

Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco urged coastal communities to evacuate as forecasts indicated Rita would come closer to the state than previously thought.

People began flooding out of the coastal region on Wednesday and the mass exodus continued on Thursday. Residents of the island city of Galveston, Corpus Christi and low-lying parts of Houston 80 kilometers inland were among the 1.3 million Texans told to evacuate.

Bumper-to-bumper traffic jams filled the region's highways. Area stores were scrambling to keep supplies on the shelves while gas stations with fuel to sell dwindled to a precious few.

"I'm leaving. I'm just not going to chance it," said Rebecca Henson, 23, in Galveston, as she prepared to head north from the island.

"When they said it was going to hit Corpus Christi, that was OK, but I don't want to be hit dead on," she said.

"I don't think they would have made this big a deal about it before, but Katrina has made everybody want to get out," said Karen McLinjoy, who was in a Houston traffic jam trying to get to Dallas, 386 kilometers north.

The departure of so many reminded of similar scenes just three weeks before in New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina came ashore and most in the city of 450,000 people fled, many of them to Texas.

Federal and Texas officials moved quickly to put rescue efforts in place to avoid the chaotic scenes of death, violence and looting that befell New Orleans when rescue operations there floundered.

At the White House, U.S. President George W. Bush was briefed on preparations for dealing with Hurricane Rita and on the latest storm track and spoke with Texas Governor Rick Perry.

Major General Charles Rodriguez of the Texas National Guard told CNN they had 3,500 troops on the ground and expected to have 5,000 by Friday evening and Saturday morning.

City officials in New Orleans, 560 kilometers east of Houston, evacuated people on Wednesday and were prepared to put more on buses out of the city if Rita turned in its direction.

Rita, still a small storm at that point, brushed across the Florida Keys on Tuesday, but did little damage.

It turned into a brute that filled half the Gulf on Wednesday and sent energy companies scurrying to evacuate production platforms in the rich oil and gas fields offshore that produce one-third of U.S. oil.

About 73 percent of total offshore oil production and 47 percent of natural-gas output was shut in as of Wednesday, according to the U.S. Minerals Management Service.