Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff advised Wednesday that the best place to be when Hurricane Rita strikes is somewhere else and thousands of residents of the Texas coast are taking that advice.
Rita strengthened into a Category Four hurricane Wednesday morning, barely 24 hours after first becoming a hurricane.
Current predictions indicate Rita will strike the Texas coast Friday night and then will move inland, battering Central Texas with winds of 40 to 60 miles per hour.
Mandatory evacuations began Wednesday morning in Galveston County.
About 80 buses were set to leave Galveston for shelters 100 miles north in Huntsville.
Wednesday morning, dozens of people lined up with pillows, bags and coolers to board one of several yellow Galveston school district buses.
A Galveston hospital and several retirement homes began clearing out patients Wednesday.
The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston is the city's only hospital.
It discharged about 200 people who were healthy enough to go home and is airlifting others inland by helicopter, ambulance and buses.
Spokeswoman Jennifer Reynolds-Sanchez says the hospital will shut down and not take any patients when the storm hits.
North of Galveston, Houston Mayor Bill White called for voluntary evacuation of low-lying and flood prone areas and mobile homes Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the state Division of Emergency Management has begun moving food, water and other supplies to Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio in preparation for evacuees and for use in case of power outages in those areas.
The company responsible for most of the Houston area's electrical utility system has recalled its workers from areas hit by Hurricane Katrina.
A spokeswoman for Houston-based CenterPoint Energy says residents should prepare for life without power for up to two weeks if Hurricane Rita hits the Texas Gulf Coast.
CenterPoint Energy operates transmission lines that serve most of the more than four million people in the Houston area.
Residents may receive electricity through another utility, but those utilities pay CenterPoint for power that comes over its lines.
In anticipation of electricity problems, generator suppliers are also bringing back equipment leased to Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama companies.
Generator supplier Stewart and Stevenson says more generators are becoming available as power is restored in the Katrina areas. Those generators are being trucked to Southeast Texas.
Officials at facilities that handle sensitive biological and nuclear materials are also preparing for Hurricane Rita if it hits the Texas Gulf Coast.
One of the few certified U.S. labs handling the world's most infectious, lethal viruses is at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, which is less than a mile from the Galveston seawall.
Lab director Michael R. Holbrook says workers there have already destroyed lab cultures in which viruses were growing and will begin packing the lab up Wednesday.
The remaining viruses will be sealed and locked in freezers.
Then, if Rita still threatens, the lab will be fumigated with formaldehyde on Thursday.
The South Texas Project nuclear power plant near Bay City will shut down its two reactors before hurricane-force winds hit the complex.
Plant spokesman Edward Conaway says workers there have started tying down any equipment that can't be brought indoors.
The acting head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency promises a "big difference" in its response to Hurricane Rita from the previous response to Hurricane Katrina.
FEMA Acting Director R. David Paulison says all communications are being taken "very seriously."
He also says the agency is depending much more heavily on the Defense Department and the National Guard.
He stresses that communication between agencies is imperative to an efficient response to another hurricane crisis.
He says his top priority would be ensuring that Texas has adequate safeguards in place to cope with any level of damage.
MAJOR TEXAS HURRICANES:
July 20, 2005: Emily, storm packing 125 mph winds hit near San Fernando, Mexico, a coastal town about 85 miles south of Brownsville. Minimal damage reported in South Padre and Port Isabel. No deaths or serious injuries. Scattered power outages.
July 15, 2003: Claudette, Matagorda Bay-Victoria; two inland deaths, $180 million in damage across central Texas coast from winds peaking near 100 mph.
Aug. 22, 1999: Bret, Kenedy County; four highway deaths in Laredo, scattered damage as storm with 140 mph winds moved into sparsely populated region.
Sept. 16-18, 1988: Gilbert, 125 miles south of Brownsville; one dead in San Antonio; tornado and wind damage of $5 million in Brownsville, Del Rio and San Antonio.
Aug. 18, 1983: Alicia, Galveston-Houston; 21 dead, more than $2 billion damage; 22 tornadoes, winds 130 mph. Last major hurricane to strike Texas.
Aug. 9, 1980: Allen, lower coast; two dead, $55 million damage; winds 185 mph.
Sept. 3-12, 1971: Fern, middle coast; two dead, $30.2 million damage.
Aug. 3, 1970: Celia, Corpus Christi; 11 dead, $50 million damage; wind gusts to 160 mph.
Sept. 18-23, 1967: Beulah, Brownsville; 13 dead, $150 million damage.
Sept. 11-13, 1961: Carla, Port O'Connor-Galveston-Houston; 34 dead, $300 million damage; wind gusts estimated at 175 mph, storm tide 18.5 feet at Port Lavaca.
June 27, 1957: Audrey, Sabine Pass; 10 dead, $8 million damage.
Oct. 3-4, 1949: Freeport-Houston; two dead, $6.5 million damage; wind gusts estimated at 135 mph; storm tide 11.5 feet at Freeport.
Aug. 25-29, 1945: Port O'Connor; three dead, $20.1 million damage; wind gusts estimated at 135 mph; storm tide 15 feet at Port Lavaca.
July 27, 1943: Galveston Bay-Houston; 19 dead, $16.6 million damage.
Aug. 29-31, 1942: Matagorda Bay; eight dead; $26.5 million damage; winds 115 mph, storm tide 14.7 feet at Matagorda.
Sept. 23, 1941: Texas City; four dead, $6.5 million damage.
July 25, 1934: Seadrift; 19 dead, $4.5 million damage.
Sept. 4-5, 1933: Brownsville; 40 dead, $16.9 million damage.
Aug. 13-14, 1932; Velasco (Freeport); 40 dead, $7.5 million damage.
Sept. 14, 1919: South of Corpus Christi; 284 dead, $20.3 million damage; winds 110 mph, storm tide 16 feet.
Aug. 18-19, 1916: Corpus Christi; 20 dead, $1.6 million damage.
Aug. 16-19, 1915: Galveston; 375 dead, damage over $56 million. Most losses ($50 million) to crops; storm tide 16.1 feet.
July 21-22, 1909: Velasco (Freeport); 41 dead, damage at least $2 million.
Sept. 8-10, 1900: Galveston; 6,000-12,000 dead; damage $30 million to $40 million (around $800 million in today's dollars); Storm surge 15-20 feet, winds estimated at 120 mph; Deadliest
natural disaster in U.S. history.