'Historic storm' heads for coast as residents flee

President George W. Bush on Thursday warned Texans to follow the orders of local authorities as more than 1m people evacuated their homes along the Texas and Louisiana coast in advance of the powerful category 5 Hurricane Rita which is expected to hit land Saturday morning.

Mr Bush, who came under criticism for his administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, on Thursday said the federal government had already positioned resources to help local officials “swiftly and effectively”.

“This is a big storm,” Mr Bush said at the Pentagon. “It is really important for our citizens on the Texas coast to follow the instructions of the local authorities. People understand the need to evacuate more clearly. There appears to be a significant evacuation from parts of the Texas coast to get out of harm's way.”

Rita was expected to hit shore near Galveston, Texas, Saturday morning as at least a category 3 storm, which would have winds of up to 135mph. Katrina hit shore as a category 4 storm.

“It's not a good picture for us at this point,” said Steve LeBlanc, the city manager of Galveston. “We're in for a historic storm.”

Local authorities issued evacuation orders for Galveston, and Corpus Christi, another coastal town, as Rita moved closer to the coast at about 9mph. Highways out of Houston were practically at a standstill as residents followed orders to leave. Courts, schools, doctors and hairdressers shuttered windows, fearing a repeat of the destruction left by Katrina less than a month ago.

Many Houstonians prepared by placing sandbags around their homes and tacking plastic sheeting or boards to windows. Roads backed up as motorists lined up at banks to withdraw cash, and at petrol stations to fill tanks. Traffic crawled along one main highway out of town.

In Louisiana, Governor Kathleen Blanco, who has been criticised for her response to Katrina, on Thursday urged residents from southern parts of the state to go north. Ms Blanco has also asked the federal government for 15,000 more troops for Louisiana. “We can expect serious consequences from this hurricane,” she said.

Oil prices rose close to $68 a barrel as the storm moved towards an area in the Gulf of Mexico containing many offshore oil rigs and production platforms, causing oil companies to evacuate all their employees. Government figures showed 73 per cent of oil production in the Gulf and 47 per cent of natural gas production was shut down. The price of petrol and natural gas also rose sharply as the storm tracked further north than expected, threatening 18 refineries and many vital installations well inland. Ten more refineries were shuttered in addition to those still closed from Hurricane Katrina. In all, one fifth of total US refining capacity was off-line.

“[For oil installations] it looks even worse than Katrina,” said Bruce Evers, an analyst at Investec Securities.

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