NEW ORLEANS, United States (AFP) – Storm-weary residents began fleeing devastated New Orleans again as Hurricane Rita threatened the Gulf Coast three weeks after Katrina”s deadly passage.
Rita”s threat forced Mayor Ray Nagin to suspend his plan to gradually repopulate the city, and he warned residents who have come back that they may have to pack up and leave again.
He said New Orleans is ready for a full-scale evacuation order if Rita, currently lashing southern Florida, should swing north after it enters the Gulf of Mexico.
"There are 500 buses staged and ready to go," he said, adding that two busloads had already been moved out of the city.
"As long as that storm is still a significant threat in the Gulf of Mexico, we”re going to start to shut the city down," Nagin said.
"Based upon the storm threat, we will start to strictly enforce the evacuation process tomorrow," he said.
US meteorologists upgraded Rita to a more powerful Category Three category on the five-level hurricane intensity scale.
At 0600 GMT Wednesday Rita packed winds of 185 kilometers (115 miles) per hour, officials at the Miami-based National Hurricane Center reported.
"Additional strengthening is forecast during the next 24 hours," the Hurricane Center said in an advisory, "and Rita is expected to become a Category Four hurricane sometime later (Wednesday)."
Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco said that southwestern parts of the state had been placed on an emergency footing, after urging people to prepare to evacuate.
She warned that the state could barely handle the aftermath of Katrina, which struck on August 29, and that a further storm hitting Louisiana would have unknown consequences.
The warnings came as President George W. Bush toured the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast for the fifth time in three weeks.
Bush lauded progress made in the Katrina relief effort and praised Nagin”s decision to halt resident resettlement because of Rita.
"He made a wise decision to say to people, be cautious about returning here, because a rain of any amount could cause these levees to break again," Bush said while visiting a coffee roasting plant here.
Just four days after calling on nearly 200,000 citizens to start returning to least-affected neighbourhoods, Nagin made a humiliating U-turn on Monday, suspending the resettlement and telling people to leave.
"I know there are lots of people very anxious about coming home. Just hold on a little longer. As soon as we get comfortable that Rita is clear of landfall in Louisiana, we will get back to our re-entry programme," he vowed Tuesday.
Some diehard residents living in districts not flooded by Katrina continued to defy calls to leave the city.
"I am not leaving. I”ve fed the police and the military, I cooked 800 steaks for them," said Finis Shelnutt, who lives in the French Quarter, which once buzzed with music and tourists but is now filled with patrolling troops.
Packing winds of 160 kilometres (100 miles) per hour, Hurricane Rita pounded the fragile Florida Keys islands Tuesday before moving into the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico.
"Additional strengthening is forecast, and Rita will likely become a category three or major hurricane on Wednesday," the National Hurricane Center said in a bulletin.
Rita was forecast to make landfall in Texas over the weekend, but experts warned that it could slam ashore anywhere between northeastern Mexico and the swamplands of southern Louisiana, west of New Orleans.
On August 29, Hurricane Katrina, rated four on the five-category Saffir-Simpson scale, on which five is the most violent, lay waste to the coastlines of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, inflicting the costliest natural disaster in US history.
Nearly 1,000 bodies have been found so far and the death toll is expected to rise.
With shelters already packed with Hurricane Katrina evacuees, Louisiana officials urged people to make arrangements to stay with friends or family if they need shelter.
Officials are looking for additional shelter space in case Rita forces more evacuations, said Lieutenant Colonel Bill Doran, chief of operations for the state”s homeland security and emergency preparedness office.
"We”re encouraging citizens to plan ahead, make provisions with friends and relatives out of the area as the evacuation shelter space may be at a premium," Doran told reporters in the Louisiana capital Baton Rouge.
Hundreds of thousands of people remained displaced by Katrina, whose economic cost has been put tentatively at 200 billion dollars.
Agricultural losses alone are estimated at 900 million dollars, said US Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.
The hurricane hit a range of production in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, including cotton, sugar cane and dairy. About 10,000 cattle and millions of chickens died.
Authorities at almost every level have been widely criticised for fumbling their response to Katrina, but the disaster unleashed an outpouring of help from the US public.
A White House spokesman said Tuesday that Bush had picked a domestic policy adviser to lead an investigation of the federal government”s response to Katrina.