TAMARA LUSH, ANITA KUMAR and CRAIG PITTMAN
As the monster storm closes in, people along the Texas coast begin fleeing - including many who had been driven there by Katrina.
HOUSTON - Three weeks after abandoning New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of evacuees who fled to Texas hit the road again as the even more powerful Hurricane Rita took aim at their new home.
Where to go? Herb Tauzier decided to go back to New Orleans.
But not to his drowned apartment there. Instead, he and his wife, Catherine, stuffed their clothes, blankets and papers in black plastic bags, piled them on the back of a flatbed trailer and set out for his parents' home in Metairie, just outside New Orleans.
"I don't want to go back," said Tauzier, sweating from the heat and exhausted from weeks of uncertainty. "But I don't want to stay here."
Fueled by the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Rita swiftly grew Wednesday from a 115 mph Category 2 to a Category 5 with 165 mph winds.
It is the third-most-intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. It's also big: 350 miles across with hurricane winds extending 70 miles from the center.
Such a storm could cause widespread destruction along Texas' 367-mile coastline when it makes landfall, projected for late Friday or early Saturday.
Mindful of Katrina's devastation just 23 days before, officials ordered the evacuation of more than 1.3-million people in Texas and Louisiana.
But Katrina complicated the question of where to send everyone.
"There are no hotel rooms to be had in Houston because we had 55,000 evacuees from Louisiana," said Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, whose district includes Houston.
For many Katrina evacuees, already weary of their nomadic existence, being forced to flee again was almost too much to bear.
Luke Gross, 56, said the past three weeks had been a blur as he shuttled from New Orleans to Baton Rouge to Mansfield, La., until a friend took him to Galveston. Now he had to leave again.
"It's been a long, long time," he said. "I'm just tired."
In New Orleans, where some residents had started to return and even a few strip clubs had reopened, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers worked feverishly to mend the levees that failed during Katrina.
Yet Louisiana officials still smarting from criticism about their Katrina stumbles found themselves stumbling again over evacuating Katrina's evacuees.
Mark Smith, a spokesman for the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security, announced that 13,000 evacuees in shelters in flood-prone areas would be moved farther north Wednesday. He referred questions about the specifics to the Red Cross.
But a Red Cross spokesman wasn't sure the moves were actually happening and referred reporters to state officials.
At the Lamar Dixon Expo Center, about 30 minutes south of Baton Rouge, 800 evacuees were dismayed to hear that buses were being dispatched to take them north.
"When we leave, I don't know where we're going to go," said Shirley Dobard, her husband napping beside her. "I don't know what to say anymore."
But local officials said no, and the buses never showed. Ascension Parish President Ronnie Hughes said there was no sense causing the evacuees further misery if Rita's headed to Texas. "Those people have been through enough without us uprooting their lives again," Hughes said.
Three Navy ships left the area to escape Rita. But about 13,000 soldiers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are staying put.
"We're not yet moving troops into Texas because we don't know when and where the hurricane is going to hit," said spokesman Michael Kucharek.
President Bush said the government is "ready for the worst." Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said they positioned food, ice and water for quick distribution.
Pentagon officials said they have 319,000 National Guard troops ready to respond, more than for Katrina.
New Orleans residents feared that a disaster in Texas will pull aid away from their agony.
"I hope it doesn't hit Houston," said Joe Miller. "The resources in this country have been brought to their knees."
In Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city, people were taking the evacuation order seriously. Traffic backed up on Interstate 45 "as far as the eye can see," reported KHOU-TV in Houston. Phased evacuations are expected to continue through today.
Mayor Bill White, who quickly opened the Astrodome to accommodate tens of thousands of New Orleans evacuees, said the city doesn't have enough vehicles to evacuate everyone. So he was looking for volunteers - fast.
"We need the citizens, who are the first line of defense and neighbor caring for neighbor in this community, to do your job and to go out and to actively look for those who may need assistance."
The area's geography makes evacuation particularly tricky. Houston is 60 miles inland, so a coastal suburban area of 2-million people must evacuate through a metropolitan area of 4-million where freeways are clogged under the best of circumstances.
In Galveston, a city of about 57,000, thousands of poor and elderly residents without cars were quick to seek help evacuating, said County Commissioner Stephen Holmes.
"There's no doubt in my mind that people learned the lesson from Katrina," Holmes said. "We're very organized and so far 15,000 have been evacuated on school buses."
So many people hit the road that by midafternoon Wednesday, the drive from Galveston to Houston, which usually takes 45 minutes, was a four-hour slog.
Galveston was the site of the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history: an unnamed hurricane in 1900 killed at least 6,000 people.
Rita turned into a monster storm a day after brushing past the Florida Keys. Residents began returning to Key West early Wednesday after U.S. 1, which was flooded in several spots the day before, opened to a steady stream of traffic.
Debris and seaweed covered parts of the roadway in Islamorada, with water lapping at the front porches of several waterfront homes.
If Rita remains a Category 5, it will make history. Only three Category 5 hurricanes are known to have hit the U.S. mainland, the last being Hurricane Andrew, which hit South Florida in 1992.
But National Hurricane Center forecaster Chris Landsea said the storm could weaken as it passes over cooler water in the western gulf.
Rita intensified quickly as it headed over the so-called loop current, which runs between Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and Cuba. The water there is one-half to one degree warmer than usual.
For now, Rita's greatest weapon is uncertainty, and it is taking an emotional toll.
The International Register of Shipping, which inspects ships, had an office in downtown New Orleans. After Katrina, company owner Rene Padilla rescued the computer server and set up an office and 12 apartments for his employees in Houston.
Now they are moving again.
"When we came here, we thought, what's the likelihood of this happening again?" said Padilla.
Wednesday, the employees frantically sent e-mails to their clients and packed up the computers in the makeshift office, unsure where they were headed next.
"I'm coping the best way I know how," said Argel Rodriguez, 42, the company's computer network administrator, who after evacuating New Orleans ended up at a Red Cross Shelter in San Antonio. "I am taking it as a joke now. And I'll probably get drunk tonight."
Times staff writers Carrie Johnson and Shannon Tan contributed to this report, which includes information from the Houston Chronicle, Baltimore Sun, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Cox News Service and the Associated Press.