As of Friday evening, Rita was expected to come ashore early Saturday along the upper Texas-Louisiana coast – a course that could spare Houston and nearby Galveston a direct hit. Instead, the storm may slam the oil refining towns of Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas, and Lake Charles, La., with a 20-foot storm surge, towering waves and up to 25 inches of rain, the Associated Press reports.
"We're going to get through this," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Friday. "Be calm, be strong, say a prayer for Texas."
In New Orleans, dozens of blocks in the Ninth Ward, a neighborhood that was hit hard by Katrina's floodwaters, were under water Friday as a waterfall at least 30 feet wide poured over a dike that had been used to patch breaks in the Industrial Canal.
"Our worst fears came true," said Maj. Barry Guidry of the Georgia National Guard. "We have three significant breaches in the levee and the water is rising rapidly."
Meanwhile, Kandy Huffman, a resident of Port Arthur, Texas, had no way to leave, and she pushed her broken-down car to her home with plans to ride out the storm in town, which is in the storm's cross-hairs.
"This isn't my first rodeo. All you can do is pray for best," she said. "We're surrounded by the people we love. Even if we have to all cuddle up, we know where everybody is."
Nearly 2 million people along the Texas and Louisiana coasts were urged to get out of the way of the storm, and low-lying coastal communities in Texas were emptied out on Thursday. Those who remained were told by Friday morning simply to hunker down – as it is now too late to escape to higher ground.
The usually bustling tourist island of Galveston – rebuilt after as many as 12,000 people died in a 1900 hurricane that is still the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history – was all but abandoned, with at least 90 percent of its 58,000 residents cleared out.
The unprecedented flight from the flood-prone Houston area left clogged highways at a near standstill for up to 16 hours at a stretch and several motorists running out of gas, prompting Houston Mayor Bill White to say: "We know you're out there. We understand there's been fuel shortages."
Police escorted Texas Army National Guard trucks to provide drivers with gas. The state was also working to deliver than 200,000 gallons of gas to fuel-starved stations in the Houston area.
"Hopefully, we will get lucky and it goes into a part of Texas or Louisiana where there is not a lot of people or any buildings," said Houston businessman Tillman Fertitta – a sentiment that is being echoed far and wide.
For the latest updates on the location of Rita, the National Weather Service's National Hurricane Center has information at www.nhc.noaa.gov
Justin Sullivan / Getty