Millions flee as Hurricane Rita heads for Texas

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The Independent US

More than one million people were under evacuation orders yesterday, and the heart of the US oil industry braced for the worst, as Hurricane Rita bore down on the central Texas coast, threatening to make land and be one of the most powerful storms to hit the US.

On Tuesday afternoon, the storm brushed the Florida Keys as a manageable category two hurricane. Exactly 24 hours later, it had turned into a meteorological monster - a category five storm, the highest on the Saffir-Simpson scale, with sustained winds of 165 mph.

Along a 250-mile stretch of coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi, federal, state and city authorities prepared for the terrifying prospect of a direct strike from a second massive storm in the US Gulf in the space of four weeks. In Galveston, buses started to ferry the 58,000 inhabitants to Huntsville, north of Houston, when a mandatory evacuation ordered by the mayor came into force.

Yesterday, some 72 hours before the arrival of the storm, Galveston was a virtual ghost town, its streets all but empty, its shops and stores locked and shuttered, the promenades along its 17ft sea walls deserted.

In Houston itself, America's oil and petrochemicals capital and its fourth largest city, Mayor Bill White urged people to leave low-lying areas vulnerable to the expected storm surge, and advised schools and businesses to close both today and tomorrow.

Though it lies to the west of the expected path of the storm, New Orleans too is taking no chances, less than a month after being overwhelmed by Hurricane Katrina. Officials warned that even a small surge, or even heavy rain could cause fresh flooding, overwhelm the damaged levees that protect a city - a third of which remains under water.

For several thousand Louisiana residents, Rita is bringing a painful new ordeal. After losing their homes to one storm and taking refuge in southern Texas, they are now being moved to Arkansas and Tennessee to escape another one.

But the dislocation and disruption caused by Rita will be economic as well as human. As of Tuesday, more than half of offshore oil output in the Gulf - a region that accounts for 33 per cent of US production - was still shut down because of damage from Katrina.

According to an oil analyst, Craig Smith, as many as 134 production rigs and 24 refineries lie in the possible path of Rita, a 300-mile wide storm with tropical storm force winds stretching 150 miles from its centre. He said: "The storm may weaken slightly before reaching land. But God help us if it stays as a category five. This one is headed right down the alley."

The threatened new havoc, so hard on the heels of Katrina, amounts to a one-two punch for the US oil industry. It all but guarantees further increases in petrol prices - a lesser but nonetheless significant contributor to the political woes of President Bush.

The cost of petrol had been falling slightly of late. But Rita drove oil prices up again yesterday, by $1.50 (75p) to more than $67 a barrel, and petrol prices seem certain to jump above $3 a gallon, given the extra pressure on capacity.

For all its fearsome windspeeds, officials hope this storm will be less destructive than Katrina, which destroyed or seriously damaged 64 platforms and rigs, and has shut down four refineries on the central Gulf coast. Its impact on output may be felt for three months or more.

As of yesterday, Rita had forced oil companies to evacuate 15 rigs, cutting daily output from the Gulf of Mexico by 877,000 barrels a day, equivalent to about 4 per cent of US daily consumption. By the end of the week, the precautionary shutdown is likely to be total. How quickly things get back to normal is anyone's guess. Katrina's record storm surge - which tossed oil platforms onto beaches - is unlikely to be matched by Rita, according to James Williams, of WTRG Economics, an oil research company. But much depends on the exact path the storm takes.

"Basically, we're in wait-and-see mode," Mr Williams says. "If it's a category five, who knows?"