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Taking Rita Seriously

Thousands of residents fled the Florida Keys as Tropical Storm Rita barreled toward the island chain, poised to grow into a hurricane with a potential 9-foot storm surge and sparking fears it could eventually ravage the hobbled Gulf Coast.

"Once Rita crosses the Florida Keys, it'll probably strengthen into a major hurricane over the next couple of days," said CBS News Meteorologist George Cullen. "Right now, all projected paths point to a Texas landfall."

South Floridians kept a wary eye on Rita, which threatened to arrive Tuesday and drop up to 15 inches of rain on some parts of the low-lying Keys. Oil prices surged on the possibility that oil and gas production would be interrupted once again.

"I've lived in Florida all my life," said James Swindell, 37, who shopped along a cleared-out Miami Beach on Monday. "You always have to be worried about a storm, because they are too unpredictable and they can shift on you at the last minute. Nobody knows what they are going to do."

In New Orleans, the mayor suspended his plan to start bringing residents back to the city after forecasters warned that Rita could follow Hurricane Katrina's course into the Gulf of Mexico and shatter his city's already weakened levees.

"It's projected to be a category 3 storm," said Nagin on CBS News' The Early Show. "It's probably going to pass to the west of us, which means if it gets close enough, we would get most of the wind and the rain from this hurricane."

Authorities are now making plans to get anyone who made it back out of the city, reports CBS News Correspondent Cami McCormick. Three military ships are making plans to leave, and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said the military has plans for evacuating its personnel. For others, hundreds of buses are ready to roll. They will load up passengers in downtown New Orleans and on the west bank, but also on the southwest Louisiana coast.

The storm had top sustained winds of 70 mph early Tuesday, and it was expected to strengthen into a Category 1 hurricane, with winds of at least 74 mph, as it approached the Keys. The storm's outer rain bands began drenching the Keys and Miami-Dade County early Tuesday after felling trees in the Bahamas.

"The main concern now is the Florida Keys," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "It's moving over very warm water and that's extremely favorable for development."

In the Florida Keys, it's typically tough to get a hurricane warning taken seriously. Not this time. People not only heard the order to get out, they listened — residents and tourists alike.

"You've got to be smart about it and if you don't respect it after what happened to Katrina, it's disrespectful not to leave when they tell you to leave," said a tourist.

But by Tuesday morning, emergency officials said it was too late to leave, and anyone left should simply go to a shelter, reports CBS News Correspondent Mark Strassmann.

Hurricane warnings were posted for the Keys and Miami-Dade County, the hurricane center said. Residents and visitors were 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.

"We're just trying to get enough gas to get home," said Andres Sweeting, 29, of Miami, as he stopped at a Coconut Grove gas station with his family. Long lines of customers had depleted two of the station's four gasoline tanks.

Forecasters said 3 to 5 inches of rain was possible across southern Florida. A storm surge rising 6 to 9 feet above normal tide level was predicted for the Keys.

At 5 a.m. EDT, Rita was centered about 160 miles east-southeast of Key West. It was moving west-northwest near 15 mph, according to the hurricane center.

Rita could become the seventh hurricane to hit Florida in the last 13 months. 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.

"I'm calling for a voluntary evacuation of Galveston," Texas, nearly 900 miles from Key West, said Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas. Forecasters said Rita could make landfall in Mexico or Texas by the weekend, with a possibility that it could turn toward Louisiana.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco urged everyone in the southwest part of the state to prepare to evacuate. "If Rita passes us by, we will thank the Lord for our blessings," Blanco told the state's storm-weary residents in a televised address.

Nagin told Early Show co-anchor Hannah Storm getting cooperation on this evacuation order shouldn't be a problem.

"I don't think we're going to have to really strongly enforce it," he said. "Anybody that comes back to New Orleans and sees the devastation from Katrina and realizes that there is another category 3 storm out in the Gulf, they should leave pretty quickly."

The last hurricane to directly hit Key West was 1998's Hurricane Georges, which slammed the city with 105 mph winds, damaging hundreds of homes and closing the island to tourists for two weeks.

Crude-oil futures rose above $67 a barrel Monday, in part because of worries about Rita. About 56 percent of the Gulf's oil production was already out of operation Monday because of Katrina's damage, the federal Minerals Management Service said.

Elsewhere in the Atlantic, Hurricane Philippe was far out at sea and posed no immediate threat to land. The hurricane season started June 1 and ends Nov. 30.

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