Rita Swirls Into 165-Mph Monster in Gulf; Up To A Million People Evacuated

GALVESTON, Texas (AP) -- As many as 1 million people were ordered to clear out along the Gulf Coast, and hospital and nursing home patients were evacuated Wednesday as Hurricane Rita turned into a Category-5, 165-mph monster that could slam Texas by the weekend and inflict more misery on New Orleans.

Forecasters said Rita could be the most intense hurricane on record ever to hit Texas, and easily one of the most powerful ever to plow into the U.S. mainland. Category 5 is the highest on the scale, and only three Category 5 hurricanes are known to have hit the U.S. mainland _ most recently, Andrew, which smashed South Florida in 1992.

All of Galveston, low-lying sections of Houston and Corpus Christi, and a mostly emptied-out New Orleans were under mandatory evacuation orders, one day after Rita sideswiped the Florida Keys as a far weaker storm and caused minor damage.

Having seen what Hurricane Katrina _ a Category-4, 145-mph storm _ did three weeks ago, many people were taking no chances as Rita swirled across the Gulf of Mexico.

''After this killer in New Orleans, Katrina, I just cannot fathom staying,'' 59-year-old Ldyyan Jean Jocque said before sunrise as she waited for an evacuation bus outside the Galveston Community Center. She had packed her Bible, some music and clothes into plastic bags and loaded her dog into a pet carrier.

''I really think it is going to be bad. That's really why I'm running. All these years I've stayed here, but I've got to go this time,'' said 65-year-old Barbara Anders. ''I don't have but one life, and it is time for me to go.''

The federal government was eager to show it, too, had learned its lesson after being criticized for its sluggish response to Katrina. It rushed hundreds of truckloads of water, ice and ready-made meals to the Gulf Coast and put rescue and medical teams on standby.

''You can't play around with this storm,'' Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said on ABC's ''Good Morning America.'' He added: ''The lesson is that when the storm hits, the best place to be is to be out of the path of the storm.''

By early afternoon, Rita was centered more than 700 miles southeast of Corpus Christi, drawing strength from the warm waters of the gulf. Forecasters predicted it would come ashore Saturday along the central Texas coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi. But even a slight rightward turn could prove devastating to New Orleans.

Altogether, as many as 1 million people in the Houston-Galveston area were under orders to get out, including all of Galveston County, population 267,000, authorities said. About 10,000 people in vulnerable sections of Corpus Christi were also warned to get out. Along the Louisiana coast, some 20,000 people or more were being evacuated or were told to leave.

Galveston, situated on an island 8 feet above sea level, was the site of one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history: an unnamed hurricane in 1900 that killed between 6,000 and 12,000 people and practically wiped the city off the map.

The last major hurricane to hit Texas was Alicia in 1983. It flooded downtown Houston, spawned 22 tornadoes and left 21 people dead. The damage from the Category 3 storm was put at more than $2 billion. Tropical Storm Allison flooded Houston in 2001, doing major damage to hospitals and research centers and killing 23 people.

''Let's hope that the hurricane does not hit at a Category 4 strength and let's hope the lessons we've learned _ the painful, tragic lessons that have been learned in the last few weeks _ will best prepare us for what could happen with Rita,'' Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu said in New York.

The death toll from Katrina along the Gulf Coast climbed past 1,000 Wednesday to 1,036. The body count in Louisiana alone was put at 799 by the state Health Department.

In New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers raced to patch the city's fractured levee system for fear the additional rain from Rita could swamp the walls and flood the city all over again. The Corps said New Orleans' levees can only handle up to 6 inches of rain and a storm surge of 10 to 12 feet.

''The protection is very tenuous at best,'' said Dave Wurtzel, a Corps official handling some of the repairs.

Engineers and contractors drove a massive metal barrier across the 17th Street Canal bed to prevent a storm surge from Lake Pontchartrain from swamping New Orleans again, and worked around the clock to repair the damaged pumps, concrete floodwalls, earthen berms and channels that protect the below-sea-level city.

In addition, the corps had 800 giant sandbags of 6,000 to 15,000 pounds each on hand, and ordered 2,500 more to shore up low spots and plug any new breaches.

The federal government's top official in the city, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, said the preparations in and around New Orleans included 500 buses for evacuation, and enough water and military meals for 500,000 people.

Buses stood by at the city's convention center to evacuate the 400 to 500 residents Mayor Ray Nagin estimated were left in the main part of the city, on the east bank of the Mississippi River. Two busloads left on Tuesday. But almost no one showed up Wednesday morning.

''The majority of people who are back in the city came with their own vehicle. We expect them to go out in their own vehicle,'' said Spc. Amber Mangham, a military police officer at the convention center.

The evacuation order meant that for the second time in 3