Rita Now Third Most Powerful Hurricane in Atlantic History

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Hurricane Rita is expected to make landfall at or near Texas's Galveston Bay late Friday or early Saturday. Forecasters think Hurricane Rita will weaken some before it comes ashore, but will still arrive with winds of at least 130 miles an hour (210 kilometers an hour) and inflict massive damage.

"It's the difference between tremendous damage and devastating damage," Beeler said. "It'll still be very bad. Texas hasn't been hit by something this strong in quite a while."

Like all of the recent powerful Gulf of Mexico hurricanes, Hurricane Rita underwent a period of rapid intensification. The storm climbed from a Category Two to a Category Five hurricane in less than 24 hours.

A Category Two hurricane has winds of 96 to 110 miles an hour (155 to 177 kilometers an hour). A Category Five hurricane has winds exceeding 155 miles an hour (250 kilometers an hour).

Hurricane Rita's rate of intensification approaches the most rapid intensification on record for any tropical cyclone. In 1983 a typhoon in the Pacific Ocean underwent an intensification that boosted its top winds from 75 miles an hour (120 kilometers an hour) to 173 miles an hour (278 kilometers an hour) in less than 24 hours.

Beeler said the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico have fueled the recent spate of monster hurricanes.

"For the last few years, the Gulf has had very warm waters," Beeler said. "That doesn't cause hurricanes to develop, but it acts like a high-octane fuel for them."

Rita's Birth

Rita began as a tropical depression just east of the Bahamas on September 18. The storm moved through the Straits of Florida as a Category One hurricane and then started strengthening as it moved west of Key West and into the Gulf.

Beeler said Rita might have rapidly intensified because it crossed paths with an eddy of deep, warm water. Such drifting eddies often form in the Gulf of Mexico in the late summer.

"When it stirs up the water, it stirs up more fuel instead of cooler water," Beeler said.

Hurricane Rita's intensification also was aided by the fact that there are no upper-level winds—known as wind shear—to tear the storm apart or hinder its development, Beeler said.

Hurricane Rita is the 17th tropical storm of the active 2005 season and the 9th hurricane. Meteorologists think this summer's activity is a continuation of a decade-long cycle of busy hurricane seasons.

Many meteorologists think ocean currents that cause fluctuations in the salt content of waters are causing the recent active seasons. When the salt content is higher—as is the case in the Atlantic—the water is warmer and more hurricanes form.

Willie Drye is the author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic.

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