Hurricane Rita slapped at Key West on Tuesday before strengthening in the Gulf of Mexico, where it appeared to be veering away from New Orleans, but still forced the evacuation of 7,000 of Louisiana's Katrina evacuees from Texas.
Forecasters expect Rita to swell on Wednesday into a Category 4 monster, carrying 131-mph winds, as it gains strength from the warm Gulf waters and spins westward toward an anticipated landfall early Saturday near Galveston, Tex. The storm's sudden burst of power after it passed 50 miles south of Key West, and the possibility that its track could change, sent ripples of anxiety across hundreds of miles of the Gulf Coast, much of it still in the early stages of recovery from Katrina three weeks ago.
President Bush signed an emergency declaration for Florida, which allowed federal relief help to be prepositioned. He also said that he had spoken with Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) about storm preparations.
"All up and down this coastline, people are now preparing for what is anticipated to be yet another significant storm," Bush said.
Perry activated 5,000 members of the Texas National Guard. Military leaders prepared to rush the USS Iwo Jima, which has served as a floating command post in New Orleans, and several other naval vessels out to sea to better ride out the storm. Emergency workers began plans to open shelters in central Texas, and the mayor of Galveston issued a voluntary evacuation order, which could be followed by a mandatory order on Wednesday.
The scramble to prepare for Rita's next landfall swung into motion even before the storm toppled trees and electrical lines with 90-mph gusts in Key West. But there were no reports of injuries, only isolated flooding. The damage was far less than feared from a storm so fearsome that nearly half of Key West's residents evacuated -- far more than the usual 25 percent on an island famous for its nonchalance in the face of hurricane threats.
"We are very fortunate," Key West Mayor Jimmy Weekley said.
Key West's apparent fortune did little to ease anxiety as the storm grew more powerful Tuesday. New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who has delayed plans to let residents return, urged those who are still in the city to leave once again. Two busloads of residents followed his advice. But hundreds ignored him.
In the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans, where neck-high floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina have now receded, the National Guard was warning a handful of homeowners who had sneaked into the city to check on their houses that it was time to get out again.
"We are not forcing them, but we will do anything to convince them to get out of here," said Sgt. Timothy Eagle of the Oregon National Guard, who cruised the neighborhood in a Humvee. "We don't want to come back for the body."
Perhaps the worst off, at least psychologically, are the thousands of Katrina evacuees in Texas who are now being "re-traumatized" by a second evacuation.
"You can imagine what's going on in people's minds who lost virtually everything," said Howard B. Smith, associate dean of the College of Education and Counseling at South Dakota State University and coordinator of Red Cross mental health services.
A few evacuees began boarding planes bound for Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, a state that will accept 4,000 displaced residents, while an additional 3,000 will be going to Tennessee. One thousand may be going to Nebraska. But some evacuees were unwilling to be uprooted again.
"It's a natural and well-expected reluctance," Perry spokeswoman Kathy Walt said.
Perry urged residents to fill their vehicles with gasoline, gather personal and financial records, stock up on a three-month supply of needed medications and emergency provisions such as flashlights, water and nonperishable food; and find places to stay inland.
Advance work in Louisiana, where levees are still being repaired and 40 percent of the pumps in New Orleans still do not work, included the staging of 500 buses in case the storm edged toward the city, addressing a lack of transportation that left the city with no choice but to house tens of thousands of people in squalor at the Louisiana Superdome and the convention center in the days after Katrina.
"We're learning as we go," Nagin said.
Nagin, whose plan to let residents return to the city was sternly criticized by Bush and by the administration's point man for New Orleans recovery, Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, went for a show of unity at a news briefing on Tuesday, presenting Allen with a T-shirt that read "I love New Orleans." He also hugged Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D), who declared a state of emergency as Rita entered the Gulf.
Nagin said he might begin reconsidering when to restart his plan to repopulate the city on Friday if Rita does not hit Louisiana. But he refused to discuss a timetable after meeting with Bush, who made his fifth trip to New Orleans on Tuesday, and Allen, who has cautioned that the city is still unsafe.
Now that the storm is deep into the gulf, the party can continue in Key West, where Bill Piercenall, who works in a restaurant and lives downtown, spent the hours before the storm "feet up" drinking beer.
"I'm just surprised there aren't more drag queens," said L.A. Meyers, working in the 801 bar, the only drinking establishment open on Duval Street, the main road in downtown Key West. "They love to come out during hurricanes."
The arrival of Rita on Key West is getting forecasters closer to the possibility of a notable quirk. An international committee of the World Meteorological Organization has preselected storm names for decades, first using only female names, then alternating male and female names since 1979.
But there is a finite number of preselected names -- 21 -- each summer, and after Rita, only four are left this year: Stan, Tammy, Vince and Wilma. If that list is exhausted, the meteorological group will have to revert to a backup plan: naming storms using the Greek alphabet, beginning with alpha, beta and gamma.
Roig-Franzia reported from New Orleans. Staff writers Catharine Skipp in Key West, Sylvia Moreno in Austin, Blaine Harden in New Orleans, Ceci Connolly in Baton Rouge and Ann Scott Tyson in Washington contributed to this report.