KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) – Rita strengthened rapidly yesterday to a Category 2 hurricane as it lashed the Florida Keys with flooding rain and strong wind and sparked fears the storm could eventually bring new misery to the Gulf Coast.

Sarah Royce
Noel and Bettina Marcelli walk through the strong hurricane winds toward the ocean yesterday as Hurricane Rita brushes past Key West, Fla. (AP Photo)

Rita went from a tropical storm with top sustained wind of 70 mph early yesterday to a hurricane with 100 mph wind by early afternoon as it passed just south of the Keys, the National Hurricane Center said.

Thousands of residents and tourists had fled the low-lying island chain, where forecasters said Rita could dump up to 8 inches of rain, down from earlier forecasts of up to 15 inches.

Rita threatened to continue gaining strength as it left Florida and crossed the warm Gulf of Mexico for a weekend landfall, most likely in Texas although Louisiana or northern Mexico.

“Farther out, we do anticipate further strengthening up to Category 3, or major hurricane status,” Chris Sisko, a meteorologist at the hurricane center, said before Rita rose to Category 2. Category 3 storms have maximum sustained wind of 130 mph; Katrina was a Category 4 hurricane when it the Gulf Coast with 145 mph sustained wind.

Data from a hurricane chase plane confirmed the increase to 100 mph wind, the hurricane center said.

Officials of Galveston, Texas were already calling for a voluntary evacuation. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco urged everyone in the southwest part of the state to prepare to evacuate.

Residents and visitors had been ordered to clear out of the Keys, and voluntary evacuation orders were posted for some 134,000 Miami-Dade residents of coastal areas such as Miami Beach. Some 58,000 people were evacuated in Cuba, on the southern side of the Florida Straits.

At least one segment of the Keys highway, U.S. 1, was barricaded because of water and debris, the Florida Highway Patrol said. Wind-driven water was flowing across other sections of the highway. Scattered power outages were reported.

Key West Mayor Jimmy Weekley said the islands might be spared the full fury of the storm, with Rita’s eye remaining at sea just to the south.

“I think we did, so far, dodge a bullet,” Weekley said. “We still have some time to go.”

About 1,300 people were being housed in shelters in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and all three Keys hospitals had been evacuated, Gov. Jeb Bush said yesterday.

After the sluggish government response to Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast, the governor said more than 2,000 Florida National Guard troops and dozens of law enforcement officers were ready to deal with the storm’s aftermath. More than 200 truckloads of ice and water were prepared for delivery to the Keys if needed and helicopters are in place for search and rescue, he said.

At 11 a.m. EDT, Rita was centered about 75 miles southeast of Key West. It was moving west at 15 mph, according to the hurricane center.

Roads were nearly deserted in Marathon, about 45 miles northeast of Key West, and virtually all businesses were closed, except for the Stuffed Pig diner, where workers promised to keep serving food regardless of the weather.

“We’ve stayed open lots of times with no power. We’ve got a gas stove so it gets awful hot in here but we can still serve up food,” said Julie Gervasio, who has worked at the restaurant for five years.

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