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1:26 PM Wed, Nov. 14th

Rita spins toward coast, sparking a mass exodus

HOUSTON ­ Hurricane Rita roared toward the Texas and Louisiana coasts early today, a major Category 4 storm that spurred a traffic-snarled exodus and fears it could cripple the heart of the nation's petrochemical industry. Authorities today advised Houston residents who were still at home to stay there.

Up to 20 people today were killed when a bus carrying evacuees caught fire near Dallas.

Forecasters said it appeared Houston and Galveston could avoid a direct hit as Rita veered slightly to the east, threatening its 140 mph winds at the Beaumont and Port Arthur area about 75 miles east of Houston. A 5 a.m. Arizona Time advisory from the National Hurricane Center said the winds remained at 140 mph. The storm was expected to near the coast later today or early Saturday.

This morning, the freeways within Houston had cleared out, but it was still bumper-to-bumper traffic from the outskirts of Houston toward Austin and Dallas. The state Department of Public Safety had begun escorting tanker trucks full of gas to empty stations in small towns like Brenham, between Houston and Austin.

Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, the chief executive for the county surrounding Houston, told residents who had not left yet to stay where they were for the storm.

Authorities said the bus fire on Interstate 45 near Wilmer, southeast of Dallas, could have been fueled by oxygen used by the elderly evacuees.

"Deputies were unable to get everyone off the bus," Dallas County sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Don Peritz said. "We believe it's going to be closer to 20 fatalities."

The interstate runs from Galveston to Dallas, more than 250 miles away.

The unprecedented flight from the flood-prone Houston area Thursday left clogged highways at a near standstill, frustrating hundreds of thousands of people whose cars and tempers were overheating.

"It can't get much worse, 100 yards an hour," steamed Willie Bayer, 70, who was trying to get to Sulphur Springs in far northeast Texas. "It's frustrating bumper-to-bumper."

The first rain bands were expected before nightfall tonight with the full fury of Rita expected into Saturday. Forecasters warned of the possibility of a storm surge of 15 to 20 feet, battering waves and rain of up to 15 inches along the Texas and western Louisiana coast.

Two communities that may bear the brunt of the storm are Beaumont, which is a petrochemical, shipbuilding and port city of about 114,000; and Port Arthur, a city of about 58,000 that's home to industries including oil, shrimping and crawfishing.

Texas officials scrambled to reroute several inbound highways to accommodate outbound traffic, but many people were waiting so long they ran out of gas and were forced to park.

"We know you're out there," Houston Mayor Bill White said of the congestion that extended well into Louisiana. "We understand there's been fuel shortages."

Texas Army National Guard trucks were escorted by police to directly provide motorists with gasoline. The state was also working to get more than 200,000 gallons of gas to fuel-starved stations in the Houston area.

By late Thursday night, the traffic was at least moving slowly but was still backed up for about 100 miles in what White called "one of the largest mass evacuations in American history."

Nearly 2 million people along the Texas and Louisiana coasts were urged to get out of the way of Rita, a storm that weakened Thursday from a top-of-the-scale Category 5 hurricane.

"Hopefully, we will get lucky and it goes into a part of Texas or Louisiana where there is not a lot of people or any buildings," Houston businessman Tillman Fertitta said.

At 5 a.m., Rita was centered about 260 miles southeast of Galveston and was moving to the northwest at near 9 mph. Its winds were near 140 mph, down from 175 mph reached late Wednesday and early Thursday.

Hurricane warnings were in effect from Port O'Connor, Texas, to Morgan City, La., and the National Hurricane Center forecast the storm would make landfall as a "dangerous hurricane of at least Category 3 intensity."

Tropical storm warnings also were in effect east and north to include New Orleans, still crippled by Hurricane Katrina. Rita's steady rains Thursday were the first since Katrina and the forecast was for 3 to 5 inches in the coming days.

"Hurricane Rita is a very dangerous storm," said New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. "We're not letting our guards down."

About 5,000 soldiers and National Guard members remain in the city, along with about 1,400 police officers, Nagin said.

"We should be in pretty good shape from a law enforcement standpoint as we move forward."