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Evacuations set as Rita grows fierce

Death toll from Katrina passes 1,000

NEW ORLEANS -- The official death toll from Hurricane Katrina passed 1,000 yesterday as Hurricane Rita strengthened into a Category 5 storm, whipping up 175-mile-per-hour winds and prompting evacuation orders from storm-ravaged Louisiana to Texas.

Evacuations were ordered for more than 1 million people in Galveston, and parts of Houston and Corpus Christi, Texas, as meteorologists predicted that Rita would make landfall early Saturday. Houston Mayor Bill White asked businesses to release workers Thursday and Friday. Galveston schools were closed.

''Homes and businesses can be rebuilt; lives cannot. If you're on the coast between Beaumont and Corpus Christi, now's the time to leave," Governor Rick Perry of Texas said late yesterday afternoon. Learning from deadly mistakes made during Katrina, officials ordered the evacuation of Texas hospital patients and nursing home residents in low-lying areas.

Oil prices rose by more than $1 to $67.35 per barrel yesterday, as oil and gas companies evacuated thousands of workers from platforms in Rita's path. Energy analysts, meanwhile, voiced concern that Rita would bring a round of devastating disruptions to the US oil supply, only weeks after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the energy infrastructure off the Louisiana coast.

The Energy Information Administration said yesterday that Rita threatens as many as 18 of 26 oil refineries in Texas. Those 18 refineries churn out 4 million barrels per day, representing 23 percent of the nation's total refining capacity.

''A Category 5 means catastrophic damage," said a National Hurricane Center meteorologist, Jennifer Pralgo. With sustained winds and the possibility of a storm surge of 25 to 30 feet, she said, ''it is going to mean power lines down, trees down, mobile homes and poorly built dwellings will be destroyed, roofs ripped off better-built homes, and windows shattered."

While Rita glanced off Florida as only a Category 2 hurricane, warm waters in the middle of the gulf have fueled the storm, and its current intensity places it in the highest category used to classify hurricanes. Only three Category 5 hurricanes are known to have hit the US mainland -- most recently, Andrew, which smashed South Florida in 1992. Katrina reached Category 5 offshore, but had weakened to Category 4 by the time it reached land.

Pralgo said slightly cooler waters closer to shore could weaken Rita before it hits land. ''That's what we hope," she said.

Under still sunny skies, Galveston residents yesterday packed up clothing and food and headed north to avoid a storm some politicians and meteorologists said could be stronger than a 1900 hurricane that killed an estimated 8,000 people. Galveston sits on a coastal island 8 feet above sea level, and city officials said they have learned from that storm, building tall seawalls and instituting protective measures and evacuation plans for residents.

In Houston, evacuations were largely voluntary yesterday evening. About 4,000 Katrina evacuees in Texas were moved to Arkansas and Tennessee.

NASA closed the Johnson Space Center in Houston until the threat of Hurricane Rita passes, turning over control of the International Space Station to the Russian Mission Control Center in Korolev, outside Moscow.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said twin nuclear reactors at the South Texas Project, near Bay City, about 65 miles south of Houston, will shut down seven hours before the storm hits land.

''Both plants are robust structures with watertight doors designed to withstand hurricane-force winds," the NRC said in a statement.

In Louisiana, where it was announced that the official death toll from Hurricane Katrina had passed 1,000, members of the US Army Corps of Engineers rushed to strengthen fragile levees around New Orleans. While Rita is not expected to hit the Big Easy, a slight easterly turn could bring devastating rains and storm surges through Lake Pontchartrain.

New Orleans is expected to get 2 to 4 inches of rain and tides 1 to 2 feet above normal. The levees that broke after Katrina have been temporarily sealed, but officials say it will take at least a year to fully repair them. Workers yesterday closed off two damaged canals and drove steel sheets deep into their beds to help protect the city against storm surges.

The city was quiet yesterday as most residents, save for a few holdouts, seemed to have taken Mayor C. Ray Nagin's mandatory evacuation seriously.

Nagin allowed some residents back into the city on Monday, but reversed his position after federal officials criticized the move as premature and Rita gained strength. Yesterday, Nagin said he felt better about how New Orleans would fare even if Rita turned back toward his city.

''I think the federal government, the state government, and local government are a lot smarter this time around," he said.

Few people in greater New Orleans appeared to be concerned yesterday about a storm that, according to forecasters, increasingly appeared to be headed for the coast of Texas.

In Jefferson Parish, the suburban area just west of the city that is now open to residents, strip mall parking lots were packed with shoppers, drive-through lines at fast-food restaurants were long, and doughnuts were warm at Krispy Kreme.

In stark contrast to this bustling suburb, New Orleans was quiet yesterday, except for the people still checking on their homes and businesses.

Outside Harrah's Casino, Willie Newman boarded up a broken window, not so much for Rita, but for general security. And elsewhere, few others expressed panic about Rita.

Henry Prince, an Uptown resident who rode out Katrina in his second-floor apartment, said there was no need for evacuating, even if Rita did turn north.

''I have no choice," Prince said, sitting on his neighbor's stoop, trying to catch a cool breeze. ''Houston? I don't know anything about it. I think I'll just stay."

Voluntary evacuations of about 2,450 residents from low-lying areas of Calcasieu and Cameron counties in southwestern Louisiana began yesterday, said social-services officials, who also removed several hundred special-needs Katrina evacuees from the area.

Lieutenant Colonel Peter Schneider said troops who have been doing recovery work after Katrina are ready to be deployed to Texas or other areas of Louisiana after Rita strikes. State Police urged residents fleeing the storm not to drive to Texas, where space is taken by Katrina evacuees.

Louisiana officials released new Katrina death toll figures for the first time since the weekend, saying Katrina had killed 799 in the state, bringing the storm's overall toll to 1,036, including 219 deaths in Mississippi and 19 others in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee.

Brian MacQuarrie of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from wire services was also used.

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