Driven to Texas by Katrina, the displaced of New Orleans now must flee from Rita

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The Independent US

Fresh storm chaos is threatening the southern United States as another major weather system sweeps into the Gulf of Mexico bringing rain and 100mph winds as it bears down on those people recently devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Hurricane Rita, a category two storm, passed the Florida Keys and the southern part of the state yesterday evening as it moved into the Gulf, creating a storm surge 6ft high. Thousands of people were forced to evacuate from the islands while on Cuba almost 60,000 people were moved to emergency shelters.

The biggest fear is of what will happen to Rita over the coming days and what its strength will be when it is likely to make land at the end of the week. At the moment, meteorologists believe it is most probable the hurricane will strike the coast of Texas, 100 miles south-west of Houston, where much of the state's oil and natural gas facilities are located. But it could also veer northwards and come ashore in Louisiana, where officials and residents are still struggling to cope with the aftermath of Katrina.

"Farther out, we do anticipate further strengthening up to category three, or major hurricane status," said Chris Sisko, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Centre in Miami.

Officials in the path of Rita were preparing to order the evacuation of residents as the 17th named storm of the hurricane season approached at around 15mph. The Mayor of Galveston, Texas - destroyed by a storm in 1900 which killed 8,000 people - said if Rita continued on its current path she would order an evacuation of its 58,000 residents and tell people to prepare to be away for several months. The Governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco, warned residents in the south-west of the state to prepare to evacuate.

Yesterday, more than 1,000 people still sheltering in Houston's emergency centres in the aftermath of Katrina were preparing to be flown to Arkansas. The Mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, has suspended his invitation to residents to return and has instead told people to get out of the city. He said if New Orleans received a wave surge of just three feet if would be enough to flood the city again.

Life was just beginning to return to some parts of the city as Mr Nagin made his announcement. Bars, restaurants and shops had started to open when the Mayor issued his warning that it was no longer safe. The region's oil and gas industries also face fresh disruption and prices have risen in recent days. A barrel of crude stood last night at $65.40 (£36.40).

Meanwhile, as President George Bush visited the Gulf coast yesterday for the fifth time since Katrina struck, the White House said that a Homeland Security adviser, Fran Townsend, would lead an internal inquiry into the federal response. Democrats said a fully independent inquiry - not an internal investigation - was needed.

In Mississippi, Mr Bush said: "There is no doubt in my mind that out of the rubble and out of the huge heaps of timber that used to be homes, a better Mississippi will emerge."

The death toll from Katrina stands at 973, comprising 736 in Louisiana, 218 in Mississippi and 19 in four other states. Meteorologists said this is the fourth-busiest hurricane season since recording began in 1851. The 1933 record of 21 tropical storms is four more than this year's number.