09/22/2005 at 06:00 PM EDT
Frantic to get out of town, hundreds of thousands of residents across metropolitan Houston are encountering stalled traffic extending 100 miles out of the city as they try to escape inland before Hurricane Rita's 150-mph winds threaten to attack the nation's fourth-largest city by early Saturday morning.
"We ended up going six miles in two hours and 45 minutes," said Trazanna Moreno as he and his family tried to leave Houston for the 225-mile trip to Dallas on U.S. 90. (He turned back after getting stuck in traffic.) "It could be that if we ended up stranded in the middle of nowhere that we'd be in a worse position in a car dealing with hurricane-force winds than we would in our house."
An estimated 1.8 million Texas and Louisiana residents have been told to evacuate, reports the Associated Press. Warned Harris County Judge Robert
Eckels in Houston: "Don't follow the example of Katrina and wait. No one will come and get you during the storm."
Rita was downgraded Thursday morning from a maximum Category 5 hurricane to a Category 4 as it swirled across the Gulf of Mexico, and there is hope that the storm could lose even more steam by the time it reaches land.
In the afternoon, Rita made a turn to the right, and it appeared that Houston and Galveston might escape a direct hit. Still, Galveston City Manager Steve LeBlanc said Thursday, "Galveston is going to suffer, and we are going to need to get it back in order as soon as possible."
In New Orleans, meanwhile, Rita's outer bands delivered the first measurable rain to the city since Aug. 29's Hurricane Katrina, raising fears that the patched-up levees may break again and bring new flooding.
To speed the evacuation, Texas Gov. Rick Perry ordered a halt to all southbound traffic into Houston along Interstate 45 (which is also the evacuation route for nearby Galveston). He also took the unprecedented step of directing the opening of all eight lanes to northbound traffic out of the city for 125 miles, says AP.
In Houston, home to 4 million people, service stations reported running out of gas, and police officers carried fuel to desperate motorists. Texas authorities also asked the Pentagon for help in getting gas to drivers stuck in traffic.