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[size=+2]Texas bus fire snarls Rita evacuation, 20 dead[/size]

By Erwin Seba GALVESTON, Texas (Reuters) - The evacuation of the U.S. Gulf Coast turned deadly on Friday when a bus carrying people fleeing Hurricane Rita caught fire on a Texas highway, killing at least 20 people along a major escape route, local officials and news reports said.

The bus caught fire on Interstate 45 south of Dallas and closed the highway, officials said. Television footage showed the charred bus with a long string of cars stuck in traffic behind it. Dallas television station WFAA reported 20 dead.


The accident came as authorities struggled to complete one of the largest evacuations in U.S. history in the final hours before the expected landfall of Hrricane Rita, carrying 140 mph (220 kph) winds toward the coasts of Texas and Louisiana.

More than 2 million people were leaving the Gulf coastal areas and Houston, the fourth-largest U.S. city, was deserted, with stores closed, roads emptied and few people on the streets.

Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt said he didn't know how many people had fled the metropolitan area of 4 million people, but said police were out in force.

"We've never had an evacuation this large -- I don't think anyone in the country has -- so I think that, based upon that, we're doing a pretty good job," Hurtt told CNN on Friday.

The Category 4 hurricane was barreling northwest across the Gulf, with winds near 140 mph (220 kph), the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. Rita was expected to make landfall overnight on Friday but its destination remained unclear.

As of 8 a.m EDT (0900 GMT), Rita's center was about 260 miles (418 km) southeast of Galveston and about 220 miles (354 km) southeast of Cameron, Louisiana. With hurricane-force winds extending 85 miles (136 km) from its eye, the storm was moving northwest at 9 mph (14 kmh) toward the southwest Louisiana and upper Texas coasts.

The storm was headed just east of Galveston and Houston early on Friday and could bring a storm surge of 20 feet and up to 15 inches of rain, the National Hurricane Center said.

TRAFFIC NIGHTMARE

People trying to escape Houston crowded inland-bound highways and sat in enormous traffic jams that lasted for hours on Thursday. Fights were reported at gasoline stations and one interstate highway was turned into a one-way route inland to ease a 100-mile (160 km) traffic jam.

In Louisiana, still reeling from Hurricane Katrina three weeks ago, Gov. Kathleen Blanco pleaded with residents in low-lying coastal communities to head north. She recorded an automated telephone message, sent to more than 400,000 households, saying: "Hurricane Rita is heading your way."

A hurricane warning was in effect along a 450-mile (724 km) stretch from Port O'Connor, Texas, to Morgan City, Louisiana, and officials warned Rita remained unpredictable.

"I don't think anyone in the Gulf Coast is out of harm's way," said David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

To the east, Mississippi declared a state of emergency due to Rita's changing path and the possibility it could cause heavy rains, flooding and tornadoes.

President George W. Bush, criticized for a slow federal response to Katrina, planned to visit Texas on Friday to view the emergency preparations.

As Rita threatened the region's massive oil industry, Exxon Mobil said it was closing its Baytown, Texas, facility, the largest U.S. oil refinery, and one in Beaumont, 90 miles (144 km) east.

The offshore Gulf region produces a third of U.S. oil. The closings raised to at least 13 the number of U.S. refineries out of commission from Katrina and Rita, which have shut 29 percent of U.S. refining capacity and raised the specter of serious gasoline shortages in the days ahead.

There was minor flooding on west side of Galveston Island from rising tides. Heavy surf, big waves hit the seawall protecting Galveston city and spray shot over it, falling on empty streets.

More than 90 percent of its residents had fled Galveston, a barrier island nearly leveled by a 1900 hurricane that killed 8,000 people. The 17-foot (5-metre) seawall built after that storm may not be high enough for the storm surge Rita was expected to bring.

"Galveston is going to suffer," City Manager Steve LeBlanc said.

Some people said, however, they could not bear to leave.

STAYING WITH THE DOG

Diane Bethea, who lives a block from the seawall, said she would stay because her dog, a Doberman Pinscher, at 100 pounds was too big to be caged on an evacuation bus. "If we're going to die, we're going to die together," she said.

Many who were trying to leave said they were taking heed from Katrina, a Category 4 hurricane that smashed into the Louisiana and Mississippi coastal areas on Aug 29. Its force broke levees in New Orleans, flooding the city where thousands had been unable or unwilling to flee.

Katrina killed at least 1,066 people and displaced as many as 1 million.

"I don't think they would have made this big a deal about it before but Katrina has made everybody want to get out," Karen Mclinjoy said as she sat in a Houston traffic jam.

Rita was downgraded to Category 4 from Category 5 -- the most powerful ranking -- on Thursday as it slowed a bit.

Still expected to lose some steam as it neared land, Rita could hit as no less than a Category 3 storm with winds of up to 130 mph (209 kph).

In New Orleans, slammed by Katrina, water could be seen weeping through the bottom of a newly patched levees and forming a shallow pool, but an official with the Army Corps of Engineers said it was not unexpected in the weakened barrier.

(Additional reporting by Matt Daily and Mark Babineck in Houston, Kenneth Li in Corpus Christi, Bernie Woodall in New York and Allan Dowd in Baton Rouge)
2 large hurricanes in 2 months, anyone seeing a patten?
 

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I blame Al'qaeda for these Hurricanes, oh wait I'm not American.... :p

Still gotta love the fact the Hurricane was about the size of England :D
 

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Selective quoting sir, tsk tsk, I did comment on the fact the hurricane was the size of England, bet it was pretty from space, anyways.....
 
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