HOUSTON, (Texas), Sept 22 (AFP): Massive Hurricane Rita hurtled across the Gulf of Mexico towards the Texas coastline Thursday, forcing crews to abandon oil platforms and hundreds of thousands of people to flee.
A powerful Category Five hurricane -- the most powerful on the five-category Saffir-Simpson scale -- Rita packed maximum sustained winds of 280 kilometres (178 miles) per hour with higher gusts, according to the Miami-based National Hurricane Centre.
At 0600 GMT Rita's eye was located some 870 kilometres (540 miles) southeast of Galveston, Texas, in the Gulf of Mexico, the Hurricane Center said in a statement.
The hurricane was moving in a northwesterly direction towards the Texas coastline at around 15 kilometres (nine miles) per hour, though it is expected to pick up speed in the next 24 hours.
The statement described Rita as a "potentially catastrophic" hurricane.
Rita is projected to slam ashore some 120 kilometres (80 miles) southwest of Houston early Saturday, exposing the city to the so-called dirty side of the storm where the eyeball packs the most power.
But forecasts show that a large swath of the Gulf coast, reaching from the northeastern tip of Mexico to southwestern Louisiana, including New Orleans, are at risk.
Still smarting over criticism for their sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, US authorities ordered the Texas port of Galveston and parts of Houston and Corpus Christi to be emptied.
About one-quarter of US oil operations are based in the Gulf of Mexico area. BP, Shell and other oil companies evacuated more than 600 oil platforms and rigs.
US authorities said more than 70 per cent of oil production in the Gulf has been shut down. Nerves over the new threat to world supplies pushed up crude prices. New York's main contract, light sweet crude for delivery in November, rose 60 cents to close at 66.80 dollars per barrel.
The few people in New Orleans, Louisiana, a city still recovering after being hit August 29 by Hurricane Katrina -- a Category Four storm -- were also told to get out.
The Katrina death toll past 1,000 Wednesday, and many of those who fled at the time are among those having to evacuate again.
Katrina forced Alicia Baxter and her family into the Superdome stadium in New Orleans, then the Astrodome in Houston, and they had arrived last week in Galveston -- a barrier island town of 57,000 where the deadliest US hurricane on record left between 8,000 and 12,000 dead in 1900.
"I'm about to go kill myself," Baxter said as relatives packed up behind her. "This is unbelievable."
Tens of thousands of people in emergency shelters in Houston and western Louisiana were also told to leave again.
"Hurricane Rita on its present course poses a risk to Houston and the whole Houston region," said Mayor Bill White, said as he told residents to flee flood-prone areas of the city of two million.
Houston's port and NASA's Johnson Space Center also closed down. NASA handed control of the International Space Station to counterparts in Russia.
Bumper-to-bumper traffic choked the road from Galveston to Houston as the exodus got underway. Ambulances, sirens blaring, rushed out hospital, families packed their belongings in cars and school buses ferried those lacking their own means of transport.
Federal authorities put trucks carrying water, ice, food and medicine on standby in Texas. Emergency workers and medical teams were also alerted.
"Mandatory evacuations have been ordered for New Orleans and Galveston. I urge the citizens to listen carefully to the instructions provided by state and local authorities. And follow them," President George W. Bush said.
Texas Governor Rick Perry also urged coastal residents to head to safer ground.
The storm entered the Gulf of Mexico after brushing past Cuba and the Florida Keys on Tuesday as a Category Two hurricane, drenching Havana and cutting power to more than 24,000 south Florida homes, but leaving no reported casualties.