Hurricane Rita grew into a Category 4 storm Wednesday, as forecasters said its winds have reached 135 mph as its churns toward landfall later this week on the Gulf Coast.
Mandatory evacuations have already been ordered for New Orleans and Galveston, Texas, one day after Rita skirted past the Florida Keys as a Category 2 storm, causing minimal damage.
Officials made plans to move refugees from Hurricane Katrina who had been housed in the Houston area to Arkansas.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff urged residents to heed evacuation calls.
"The lesson is that when the storm hits, the best place to be is to be out of the path of the storm," he told ABC's "Good Morning America." "There's plenty of (advance) notice about Rita."
Acting FEMA Director R. David Paulison said the agency has aircraft and buses available to evacuate residents of areas the hurricane might hit. Rescue teams and truckloads of ice, water and prepared meals were being sent to Texas and Florida.
"I strongly urge Gulf coast residents to pay attention" to the storm, he said.
Stung by criticism of the government's slow initial response to Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush signed an emergency declaration for Florida and spoke with Texas Gov. Rick Perry about planning for the storm's landfall.
Perry said Texans are taking the warnings seriously.
"I think Texas is prepared as any state in the nation," he told NBC's "Today" show Wednesday.
Some 130,000 people were evacuated in Cuba, on the southern side of the Florida Straits. The storm churned up roiling waves and soaked the northern coast as it made its way past Havana.
Electricity, gas and water services were interrupted in neighborhoods around the capital of 2 million and some streets were flooded. Havana's international airport was closed to incoming and outgoing flights.
Rita created relatively few problems along the Florida Keys, where thousands of relieved residents who evacuated are expected to begin returning in earnest on Wednesday.
During daytime hours, several stretches of the Keys highway, US 1, were barricaded because of water and debris; by nightfall, only one small problem area remained and the entire highway was passable, the Florida Highway Patrol said.
There were reports of localized flooding, and some sections of the Lower Keys were still without power early Wednesday. But the storm's raging eye did not hit land.
"It was fairly nothing," said Gary Wood, who owns a bar in Marathon, about 45 miles northeast of Key West. "It came through and had a good stiff wind, but that was about it."
In Key Colony Beach, an oceanfront island off Marathon, Mayor Clyde Burnett said a restaurant and hotel were damaged by water and wind, but that widespread problems simply didn't arrive as expected.
Visitors ordered out of the Keys will be invited back Friday, and virtually all other voluntary evacuation orders in South Florida were lifted after Rita roared past.
Now, all eyes following Rita are turning toward the Gulf, where the hurricane is causing new anxiety among Katrina victims in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.
At 5 a.m. EDT, Rita's eye was about 175 miles west of Key West. The storm was moving west at 14 mph, a track that kept the most destructive winds at sea and away from Key West.
"There's still plenty of warm water that it needs to move over in the next couple days. The forecast is favorable for further intensification," said Michelle Mainelli, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center.
Those were words that Gulf coast residents certainly did not want to hear. Even those who had survived major hurricanes were getting ready to leave, not wanting to challenge Rita's potential wrath or cling to hope that they'd be spared in the same manner the Keys were.
"Destination unknown," said Catherine Womack, 71, who was boarding up the windows on her one-story brick house in Galveston. "I've never left before. I think because of Katrina, there is a lot of anxiety and concern. It's better to be safe than sorry."
About 80 buses were set to leave the city Wednesday bound for shelters 100 miles north in Huntsville. The buses were part of a mandatory evacuation ordered by officials in Galveston County, which has a population of nearly 267,000.
"We've always asked people to leave earlier, but because of Katrina, they are now listening to us and they're leaving as we say," said Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas.
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 officially ends Nov. 30.
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