Rita has picked up more steam, upgraded Wednesday morning to a Category 4 Hurricane with 135 mph winds. Rita appears headed for the Gulf Coast with Texas a likely target and western Louisiana and northern Mexico also possibilities.
And things could get worse: the Hurricane Center says Rita could make its second strike at the end of the week, possibly Friday.
Tuesday, Rita went from a tropical storm with top sustained wind of 70 mph early in the day to a hurricane with 100 mph winds by early afternoon as it passed just south of the Florida Keys. Then, overnight, it moved up to Category 3 and then 4.
Texas Governor Rick Perry's office says about 4,000 evacuees from Louisiana will be moved to Fort Chafee, Arkansas, 3,000 will be moved to Tennessee, and 250 will be moved to Nebraska.
In, the Army Corps of Engineers is racing to patch up the city's fractured levee system. Residents who refused to flee Katrina - and those who have returned home - were again urged to evacuate, with the chance that heavy rain could trigger new floods.
Rita is now located about 145 miles west of Key West and about 130 miles northwest of Havana, moving west at about 14 mph, with hurricane force winds extending 45 miles from the center, and tropical storm force winds reaching out 140 miles from the eye of the storm, the season's fifth major hurricane.
In the wake of Rita's first strike, at least one segment of the Florida Keys highway, U.S. 1, is now barricaded because of water and debris from the storm surge that washed over the road - the only one in and out of the area. Scattered power outages are also reported.
According to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, about 1,300 people are in shelters in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and all three Keys hospitals were evacuated.
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.
Gov. Bush says over 2,000 Florida National Guard troops and dozens of law enforcement officers are 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.
"We have got a lot of flooding, it is literally almost up to our knees. This storm surge is really coming over — there's a 4-foot wall behind these homes and the water is coming over these homes," said Tina Verona of CBS station WFOR-TV, reporting from Marathon, Fla.
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.
Forecasters said the storm could hit Texas by the end of the week. But a slight turn to the right was possible, and engineers warned that even a glancing blow to New Orleans and as little as three inches of rain could swamp the city's levees.
Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco strongly urged people along the Louisiana coast to.
Rita's threat was enough to frighten places like Galveston, Texas – potentially in Rita's path – as many people are already clearing out under a mandatory evacuation, Strassmann reports.
"You should be listening to us and you should be prepared to go on the highway," said Lyda Ann Thomas, the mayor of Galveston.
"Nobody's going to take a chance. Everybody's a little bit scared right now because of the Katrina thing," Galveston evacuee Danny Owens told Strassmann.
On the southern side of the Florida Straits, Cuba evacuated 58,000 people from low-lying areas along the northern coast, more than 6,000 in Havana alone, Cuban National Defense officials reported Tuesday.
CBS News' Portia Siegelbaum reports that as Rita continues to move west-northwest, Cuba's Civil Defense lifted the hurricane alert in four provinces in central Cuba. Cuba evacuated 136,452 people, including 5,552 tourists, as of midday Tuesday, even though the island expects to be spared the brunt of Hurricane Rita's fury.
Cuba's top meteorologist, Jose Rubiera, said the heaviest accumulation of rain was 3.1 inches in Matanzas province, Siegelbaum reports, and the speed at which Rita is moving prevented greater accumulations despite the intensity of the rainfall, he said.
Cuban officials also transferred scores of tourists from a sea-level hotel on a tip of land jutting into the ocean at the Varadero beach resort, east of Havana, where high winds knocked down utility poles and scattered tree branches.
Rita is the 17th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, making this the fourth-busiest season since record-keeping started in 1851. The record is 21 tropical storms in 1933. Six hurricanes have hit Florida in the last 13 months.
The hurricane season started June 1 and ends Nov. 30.