Gridlock in Houston as Texans Flee

Texas authorities will begin airlifting on Thursday at least 9,000 people from Beaumont and Houston, including nursing home residents, those without transportation and the homeless, to inland Texas cities as part of the massive coastal evacuations ahead of Hurricane Rita (search).

Steve McCraw (search), state director of homeland security, said at least some of the flights will take off from George Bush International Airport in Houston. The evacuees will be taken to San Antonio, Amarillo, El Paso, Dallas, Fort Worth and Lubbock.

It was taking people 10 to 12 hours to navigate Houston's (search) freeways, crowded under the best of circumstances, as they tried to get to interior Texas from the coast.

Fathers and sons got out of their cars and played catch on freeway medians. Others stood next to their cars, videotaping the scene, while others car-hopped, walking between cars chatting with people along the way. Wreckers tried to wind their way along the shoulders, pulling stalled cars out of the way.

"I'm very nervous, very," said Monette Baugh, who decided to stay in Galveston a while longer after seeing news reports on the traffic congestion. "I try to keep busy, not watching the news too often. When they told us to leave it was really too late. Their plan didn't work the way it was supposed to. These people are stuck on the freeway, stuck in lines to get gas and there is not any gas."

"I wish I wasn't here but there is no way to get out now," she said.

State officials opened all lanes of Interstate 45 to northbound traffic out of Houston. They planned to do the same for Interstate 10 and U.S. Highway 290 by Thursday afternoon.

Hurricane Rita grew into a monster storm with 175-mph sustained winds in the Gulf of Mexico early Thursday. Forecasters said Rita could be the strongest hurricane on record to ever hit Texas, and easily one of the most powerful ever to slam into the continental United States. Only three Category 5 hurricanes, the highest on the scale, are known to have hit the U.S. mainland -- most recently, Andrew, which smashed South Florida in 1992.

But with its breathtaking size -- which one meteorologist described as a tornado the size of Georgia with water -- practically the entire western end of the U.S. Gulf Coast was in peril, and even a slight rightward turn could prove devastating to the fractured levees protecting New Orleans.

Texas began evacuating people on Tuesday, giving special attention to hospitals and nursing homes -- three weeks after scores of sick and elderly patients in the New Orleans area drowned in Katrina's floodwaters or died in the stifling heat while waiting to be rescued.

Military troops in South Texas also started moving north and schools, businesses and universities were closed.

Galveston was already a virtual ghost town. The city's lone hospital was evacuated along with residents of a six-story retirement home.

Tommy Green, 38, evacuated from his New Orleans-area home during Hurricane Katrina, found temporary housing in Galveston and recently received a job offer. Then Thursday, Green got evacuated once again.

"I'm trying to hold up," he said as after boarding a yellow school bus, which was queued up in a line of four others to take more than 100 people to safety. "I'm tired of all this. It's tough."

Green said he hasn't seen his 1-year-old daughter, who ended up in Atlanta, since Katrina struck New Orleans.

"I have talked to her, but I just want to see her," Green said. "I just got settled down and I got to leave again."

Galveston, a coastal city of 58,000 on an island 8 feet above sea level, nearly washed away in 1900 when an unnamed hurricane killed between 6,000 and 12,000. It remains the nation's worst natural disaster.

In Houston, the state's largest city and home to the highest concentration of Katrina refugees, geography makes evacuation particularly tricky. While many hurricane-prone cities are right on the coast, Houston is 60 miles inland, so a coastal suburban area of 2 million people must evacuate through a metropolitan area of 4 million people where the freeways are often clogged under the best of circumstances.

City Manager Steve LeBlanc said the storm surge could reach 50 feet. Galveston is protected by a seawall that is only 17 feet tall.

Officials in Corpus Christi were also preparing to load up about 100 buses Thursday morning to evacuate people who have no other way to get out.

Meanwhile the death toll from Katrina passed the 1,000 mark Wednesday in five Gulf Coast states. The body count in Louisiana alone was put at nearly 800, most found in the receding floodwaters of New Orleans.

Crude oil prices rose again on fears that Rita would destroy key oil installations in Texas and the Gulf. Hundreds of workers were evacuated from offshore oil rigs. Texas, the heart of U.S. crude production, accounts for 25 percent of the nation's total oil output.

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. The hurricane season is not over until Nov. 30.