Hurricane Rita grew into a monster storm with 280kph sustained winds as it swirled toward the Gulf of Mexico coast, prompting more than 1.3 million residents in Texas and Louisiana to flee in hopes of avoiding a deadly repeat of Katrina.
"It's not worth staying here," said Celia Martinez as she and several relatives finished packing up their homes and pets to head to Houston. "Life is more important than things."
As Texas Governor Rick Perry urged residents along the state's entire coast to begin evacuating well in advance of Rita's predicted landfall tomorrow, New Orleans braced for the possibility that the storm could swamp the misery-stricken city all over again.
Galveston, Corpus Christi, Nueces County, low-lying parts of Houston and New Orleans were under mandatory evacuation orders as Category 5 Rita drew energy from balmy gulf waters.
Forecasters said Rita could be the strongest hurricane ever to hit Texas. Only three Category 5 hurricanes, the highest on the scale, are known to have hit the US mainland -- most recently, Andrew, which smashed South Florida in 1992.
Hundreds of buses were dispatched on Wednesday to evacuate the poor and move out hospital and nursing-home patients, and truckloads of water, ice and ready-made meals and rescue and medical teams were on standby in an effort to show the lessons learned in Katrina.
"We hope and pray that Hurricane Rita will not be a devastating storm, but we [have] got to be ready for the worst," US President George W. Bush said in Washington.
At 5am yesterday, Rita was centered about 830km east-southeast of Galveston and was moving west at 15kph. Forecasters predicted it would come ashore along the central Texas coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi.
Hurricane-force winds extended up to 115km from the center of the storm, and even a slight rightward turn could prove devastating to the fractured levees protecting New Orleans.
In the Galveston-Houston-Corpus Christi area, about 1.3 million people were under orders to get out, in addition to 20,000 or more along with the Louisiana coast. Special attention was given to hospitals and nursing homes, three weeks after scores of sick and elderly patients in the New Orleans area drowned in Katrina's floodwaters or died in the stifling heat while waiting to be rescued.
Galveston City Manager Steve LeBlanc said the storm surge could reach 15m. Galveston is protected by a seawall that is only 5m tall.
"Not a good picture for us," LeBlanc said.
In Houston, Texas' largest city and home to the highest concentration of Katrina evacuees, geography makes evacuation very difficult.