Last Updated: Saturday, 24 September 2005, 11:11 GMT 12:11 UK
Hurricane Rita has crashed ashore with a 20ft (6m) storm surge into low-lying areas along
the Texas-Louisiana border.
The US National Hurricane Center says winds of up to 120mph (193km/h) hit land at
about 0600 GMT (0100 local).
The towns of Sabine Pass in Texas and Cameron in Louisiana took the initial fury of the
Power went down in towns across the region as electricity stations erupted pyrotechnicall
y, though most people in the target zone have already fled.
Rita was downgraded to a category three hurricane before its arrival, but experts warned
the low-lying coast could still be swamped by a storm surge from the sea, driving "large
and dangerous battering" waves.
The storm was also expected to dump up to 25in (60cm) of rain.
It's not as powerful [as Katrina], not as large and it did not hit as populated an area
The BBC's Alastair Leithead in Beaumont, Texas, took shelter in his car but found it was
being thrown around by fierce winds. When he repaired to his hotel, the glass front caved
in, scattering glass around the lobby.
Tree branches and debris were being blown through the streets.
A US television station said walls of water surged through the streets of Lake Charles,
in Louisiana, doing heavy damage to buildings.
In Galveston, Texas, some locals who did not follow the order to evacuate gathered
in the Poop Deck bar overlooking the Gulf, drinking through the storm.
"Mother Nature must be a Yankee lady," said chef Samantha Gallion. "It's like she's angry
at the southern coast."
Texas officials expressed relief that Galveston and Houston would avoid a direct hit after
the storm turned east.
"It looks like the Houston and Galveston area has really lucked out," Max Mayfield,
director of the centre, said according to Associated Press.
In Louisiana, flood surges have already broken through one of the levees repaired in
New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina hit last month.
But US army engineers said the real damage had been done by the earlier hurricane
and there was little in the abandoned city left to lose.
By mid-afternoon on Friday, streets in eastern New Orleans that were all but dry 24
hours before were flooded once more, with the deprived Ninth Ward district under
6ft (1.8m) of water.
However, New Orleans is likely to escape the worst of Rita, with a forecast of tropical
storm conditions rather than hurricane winds for the area.
Storm surges from Rita pose a greater threat to the Texan coast where officials warn
that the oil and chemical complexes around Port Arthur - known as Energy City -
could be flooded out.
In the largely evacuated town of Galveston, a fire erupted in the centre, whipped up
by high winds.
The blaze spread across at least three buildings in the historic Strand District of shops,
restaurants and clubs.
It is unclear what sparked it but an electrical pole was seen lying on one of the buildings.
On one gridlocked motorway near Dallas, 24 people died in a fire aboard a bus carrying
elderly evacuees from Houston on Friday.
It is thought that the deaths on the bus were caused when its brakes caught fire,
igniting oxygen canisters on board.