America braced as Rita hits coast with 120mph winds

AMERICA was holding its breath today as Hurricane Rita slammed into the Gulf Coast.

The storm came ashore early this morning, lashing the coastal area between Texas and Louisiana with 120mph winds and driving rain.

The powerful Category 3 storm caused 4ft floods in areas that had only just been pumped dry following Hurricane Katrina.

Rita is expected to destroy almost 5700 homes and affect more than five million Texans.

An estimated 60,000 British nationals are expected to be affected by the storm and have been warned to evacuate.

Texas Governor Rick Perry said 2.7 million people had fled the coast, evacuations were a success and the state was as ready as it would ever be.

"We are going to do everything possible to get our rescue troops to the people who need them as quickly as we can," he said.

"I think it'll be one of the most successful search and rescue operations in Texas history.

"We are going to get through it because our residents took this threat seriously. Be calm, be strong, say a prayer for Texas."

The eyewall of the storm - the ring of 120 mph winds surrounding Rita's calm eye - lashed the coastal area between Sabine Pass, Texas, and Cameron, Louisiana, according to the National Hurricane Centre.

The hurricane's eye was expected to spare Houston and Galveston but slam the oil refining towns of Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas, and Lake Charles, Louisiana.

"That's where people are going to die," said Max Mayfield, director of the hurricane centre. "All these areas are just going to get absolutely clobbered by the storm surge."

Rita caused fires and power blackouts as it headed just west of the border between Texas and Louisiana today.

A large blaze broke out in Galveston on Friday night, engulfing three buildings. It claimed its first victims yesterday when a bus carrying about 45 elderly evacuees out of Houston to Dallas exploded, killing at least 24 people.

Mechanical problems are thought to have sparked a fire, causing passengers' oxygen tanks to explode.

Rita hurricane has already caused new flooding in New Orleans. Storms surge topped one of New Orleans' battered levees and poked holes in another, sending water gushing into already-devastated neighbourhoods - just days after they had been pumped dry.

Leaks beneath another levee that was repaired with rock and gravel after Hurricane Katrina flooded homes with at least 6in of water.

British Consular staff from Houston, Washington and other offices across America have been redeployed to the region to help British nationals.

Despite warnings, Wendy Fraser from Turriff in Aberdeenshire chose not to leave her home in Fort Bend on the outskirts of Houston. She said her windows were all taped up and that they were prepared for the worst.

"We have three young children, the traffic was horrendous, there was no petrol and we just decided it was easier to stay put," she said last night.

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