msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 9/21/2005 5:27:06 PM ET 2005-09-21T21:27:06

Houston Mayor Bill White Wednesday called for residents in low-lying, flood-prone areas of the city to evacuate beginning Thursday in anticipation of Hurricane Rita, which is approaching across the Gulf of Mexico.

Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for Galveston and parts of Houston. Emergency officials said the orders mean as many as 1 million people may attempt to leave.

If it stays on its current course, the hurricane is expected to make landfall in the Galveston area, just to the southeast of Houston, the scene of America’s worst hurricane disaster in 1900, when at least 8,000 people died.

“Hurricane Rita on its present course poses a risk to Houston and the whole Houston region,” White told reporters.  “We are asking all residents in the greater Houston area that are in the storm surge area for a hurricane of this force and above to begin making their evacuation plans.”

Rita turned into a Category 5, 165-mph hurricane on Wednesday afternoon.

Schools to close
White called for residents in low-lying areas on the east side of Houston to leave the city on Thursday. He said schools should close on Thursday and Friday and employers should give their workers those two days off.

If Rita makes landfall where expected it could cause significant flooding in areas up to 35 miles inland when the anticipated storm surge rushes through Galveston Bay and along the Houston Ship Channel, emergency officials said.

White urged those who did not have the means to evacuate themselves to arrange with friends or neighbors to get out. He said if that was not possible, people should contact emergency numbers to get help from the authorities.

But he warned: “There will not be enough government vehicles to go and evacuate people in all the areas.”

Hurricane Rita also raises concerns about the oil and chemical industry in the Houston area, where 10 refineries account for about 13 percent of the nation's refining capacity. According a report in the Houston Chronicle, many of these facilities are at risk from storm surges like those caused by Katrina.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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