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Swiss stay put as Hurricane Rita approaches

Some Houston residents were making the most of the calm before the storm on Thursday

(Keystone)

As more than one million people flee their homes, most Swiss living in Texas have decided to ride out Hurricane Rita - expected to hit early on Saturday.

The storm heading towards the United States Gulf Coast is expected to be at least as powerful as Katrina, the hurricane which devastated New Orleans less than a month ago.

President Bush has declared a state of emergency in Texas and the neighbouring state of Louisiana.

Forecasters predict Rita could hit the coast of Texas in the Houston metropolitan area southwest of Galveston, a city where a hurricane claimed the lives of thousands of people in 1900.

Marie-Theres Odermatt, president of the Swiss-American Society of Houston, told swissinfo that around 500 Swiss lived in Houston and the surrounding area.

"Some of the Swiss here have evacuated, but most are staying put. I mean, where else are we going to go? In any case, all the roads leading out of the city are totally clogged," she said.

"It takes four or five hours just to get to the airport.

"Many of us have properties in Galveston... and those are all going to be gone, that's for sure. The hurricane is going to hit Galveston Bay straight on."

"Unreal"

Odermatt, who runs her own travel business in Houston, said she was in regular contact with Swiss expatriates in Texas.

"It's absolutely unreal. I just can't believe this is happening again so soon after Hurricane Katrina," she said, adding that a number of Swiss in the Houston area had taken in people who fled from New Orleans three weeks ago.

In a recorded message left for callers to the Swiss consulate in Houston, acting consul general Jürg Bono said any Swiss needing assistance or advice in connection with the approaching hurricane could contact him directly.

A statement posted on the Swiss foreign ministry website said that due to Hurricane Rita the consulate would remain closed on Friday. An emergency contact number has been made available.

Temporary closures

As the hurricane approached, Swiss agrochemicals firm Syngenta followed a number of other US and international companies in announcing that it was temporarily shutting down its facilities in Texas.

A Syngenta spokesman said its two plants would remain closed until Sunday. All of the company's 250 employees have been evacuated.

Meanwhile officials from the five Gulf Coast states affected by Hurricane Katrina have put the combined death toll at over 1,000.

The body count in the state of Louisiana alone has risen to nearly 800, with most of the corpses found in the receding floodwaters of New Orleans.

swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh

Key facts

105 years ago this month Galveston was the scene of the worst natural disaster in United States history.
The port city was levelled by a category four hurricane and more than 8,000 people were killed.
Officials say Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast three weeks ago, killed around 1,000 people.

end of infobox

In brief

Almost two million people have received an evacuation order in Texas and Louisiana, notably New Orleans.

Texas is expected to bear the brunt of the storm.

President Bush is due to visit Texas on Friday to see how the authorities are preparing for the hurricane's arrival.

end of infobox


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