Tragedy also marred the exodus Friday when as many as 24 nursing home patients evacuating the storm in Texas were killed when their bus caught fire.
The Category 4 storm, which has weakened slightly after reaching wind strength of 175 mph Wednesday, still packed nearly the same force as Hurricane Katrina when it struck Louisiana and Mississippi Aug. 29.
Its fierce winds are expected to hit the coast late Friday or early Saturday, along a path that would take it through Beaumont and Port Arthur in Texas, but spare Houston and Galveston a direct hit as had been predicted, the Associated Press reported.
Wherever the storm hits, National Weather Service meteorologist Timothy Schott warned the effects would be widespread.
“This is a huge storm and it will impact a huge area,” Schott said, according to the New York Times.
Hundreds of thousands of evacuees in Texas and Louisiana jammed highways Friday, heeding days-old warnings from officials who fear a repeat of the devastation caused by Katrina along the Gulf Coast less than a month ago.
Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, chief executive for the county surrounding Houston, told residents who had not yet evacuated to stay put for the storm lest they be caught in its fury on the road.
The storm was already lashing areas still struggling to recover from Katrina. New Orleans braced for a repeat of the broken levees that flooded the city more than three weeks ago.
On Friday, water poured over one of the city’s patched levees, flooding part of the city’s Ninth Ward, raising fears the city would re-flood once the full force of the hurricane arrives.
“Our worst fears came true. The levee will breach if we keep on the path we are on right now, which will fill the area that was flooded earlier,” Maj. Barry Guidry of the Georgia National Guard told the AP.
Dozens of blocks in the Ninth Ward were reportedly underwater — some waist deep — as water poured over a 30-foot wide stretch that had patched breaks to the Industrial Canal, the AP reported.
But the deadliest news came from Texas, where officials continued to investigate the cause of the deadly bus fire that killed 24. The bus was traveling with 45 elderly passengers along a packed highway near Dallas, a day after leaving a nursing home in Bellaire, near Houston, according to the AP.
Early indications were that passengers’ oxygen tanks began exploding after the bus caught fire from mechanical problems, Dallas County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Don Peritz told the AP. He said he believed 24 people died.
“Deputies were unable to get everyone off the bus,” Peritz said.
Tina Jones, a nurse, was driving behind the bus when she said she saw it start to smoke and pull over to the side of the road.
“I saw the smoke and then there was an explosion,” Jones, who helped treat injured patients, told the AP. “I’ll probably go home and have a good cry.”
The driver of the bus reportedly survived and helped evacuate several patients from the bus.