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HOUSTON-As Hurricane Rita, the second Gulf of Mexico storm of the season, churns its way from the Florida Keys, citizens of Houston and Galveston are taking no chances.

Forecasters predict the storm will make landfall in the upper northwest Gulf Coast sometime early Saturday morning. And residents in these areas, which had already absorbed more than 2,000 New Orleans refugees from Hurricane Katrina, are packing up and leaving under both mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders. More than one million people were ordered to exit coastal communities as the National Hurricane Center reported the latest storm–a category 5–is packing 175-mph winds or 20 mph more than Katrina’s punch.

As a result, hotels throughout Texas are experiencing the brunt of the flight. “Every hotel room east of I-35 is full, including Dallas, Waco, Austin and San Antonio,” says Pat Miller with the Austin-based Texas Hotel & Lodging Association. The closest available rooms, at press time, were in Lubbock, which is an eight-hour drive from Houston.

“Yesterday afternoon, Dallas hotels announced they could accommodate 20,000 people” Miller tells GlobeSt.com. “This morning when I came into work, they said they were completely full; they couldn’t take any more guests. Everything had been booked up last night.”

Even locations west of I-35 are beginning to feel the strain. “San Angelo and Abilene have also announced they’re full,” Miller says, adding San Angelo had a festival planned so hotel rooms in the area were previously booked. With the storm coming, he notes, one major convention in Houston had been canceled. And, he adds, “a couple more were displaced, but nothing overwhelming. It wasn’t too busy in Houston.”

However, Miller says, cities like Austin–which is hosting its annual City Limits Festival this weekend–and San Antonio have been hard-pressed to place more guests. “San Antonio tends to be a busy convention town anyway. Then, added to that, are all these folks coming out of South Texas,” he says. With rooms filling up quickly in Texas, his staff is researching hotel room availability as far west as El Paso and as far north as Oklahoma City.

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