SABINE PASS, Texas — Hurricane Rita, ebbing but still dangerous, approached the nearly deserted coasts of Texas and Louisiana today, preceded by driving rain that reflooded sections of New Orleans and swept through low-lying shoreline towns.
In the early morning hours, a hurricane warning remained in effect from Sargent, Texas, to Morgan City, La. At midnight, the Class 3 hurricane was about 40 miles southeast of Sabine Pass, on the Texas-Louisiana border, with winds of 120 mph.
Little change in strength was expected before landfall, which the National Hurricane Center said would occur around daybreak.
With the eye of the storm about 300 miles from New Orleans, Rita was flinging 70 mph gusts at the city; it swelled the city's canals by 2 feet. Water again streamed over the Industrial Canal levee and pooled waist-deep in the Lower 9th Ward, one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina nearly a month ago.
Power failed about 8 p.m. across most of coastal Jefferson County, Texas, as Rita began wobbling ashore. Within two hours, powerful headwinds raked the county and the air thickened with rain.
"We're going to get through this," said Texas Gov. Rick Perry. "Be calm, be strong, say a prayer for Texas."
Authorities said several tornadoes had spun off the front end of the storm, and the wind was so fierce that police and emergency agencies in the area prepared to pull their officers off the streets until this morning.
"We're all just hunkered down now," said R.J. Smith, emergency management assistant coordinator for Beaumont, Texas. "We've done what we can."
By evening, sheets of rain shuddered against buildings all along Sabine Pass and parts of Port Arthur, and palm trees shook like pompoms. The wind droned, a baleful, eerie hum. Churning surf with 17-foot waves hammered the coast. Downtown Beaumont was expected to be submerged by morning.
The traffic jams that overwhelmed highways in Houston and across the state appeared to ease Friday. But hundreds of abandoned cars littered highways from Galveston to Houston as evacuees searched on foot for shelter from the stiffening winds.
In some spots, traffic remained chaotic, even deadly: A bus carrying elderly nursing home evacuees from Houston exploded on a suburban Dallas freeway, killing 24 people. The bus had bogged down in traffic, and sheriff's officials suspected that sparks from failed brakes may have ignited oxygen canisters being used by passengers with breathing problems.
Emergency officials made last-minute efforts to aid residents unable to evacuate the threatened coastline on their own. Cargo planes airlifted 4,000 hospital and nursing home patients out of the port city of Beaumont and the shell-fishing center of Port Arthur. Houston police patrolled the region's highways in transit buses, picking up hundreds of evacuees who had run out of gas.
On Friday afternoon, Houston Mayor Bill White urged the city's remaining residents to stay in their homes and warned evacuees still streaming north to find shelter. "Now's the time to get inside," he said. "People should be off the streets as these winds are coming down."
White had repeatedly said the city would not open shelters as long as it remained in the hurricane's path. But by Friday morning, with traffic finally beginning to flow after thousands of evacuees spent a difficult night stuck in their cars, the Red Cross began setting up 30 shelters.
When the First Baptist Church on Interstate 10 opened its doors, 90 people registered within an hour. They were not weary motorists, but poor residents grateful for a place to stay.
"We thought we would be in our house during the hurricane," said Alejandro Vasquez, 33, whose wife gave birth Thursday in a local hospital. "It isn't safe. I'm glad this church opened. I was very worried. We didn't have anyplace to go."
In its final, daylong passage over the Gulf of Mexico, Rita diminished from a Category 5 hurricane -- the top rating on the intensity scale used by meteorologists -- to a Category 3. But experts warned that Rita's shrunken state was deceptive, pointing to reports of rising tides and violent surf as evidence that the storm remained coiled with explosive energy.
"It's still a major hurricane," said Chris Sisko, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Galveston city officials said late Friday that they had been told by the hurricane center that the core of the storm would come in at High Island, just west of Port Arthur.
"The big swath of damage could run from Cameron, La., to Galveston [and] into Houston," Sisko said.
The storm was so vast, with hurricane-force winds that extended 85 miles from the eye and tropical-storm-force winds stretching 205 miles, that its approach was felt all along the Texas-Louisiana gulf coastline for nearly half a day before the expected official landfall.
The most danger seemed to be to the Texas oil-refining towns of Port Arthur and Beaumont as well as Lake Charles, La., on the western edge of the state.