THREE North-East businessmen trapped in the path of the hurricane heading towards the US said last night that they would tough it out.

Hurricane Rita is expected to hit the south-east coast of the mainland late tonight or early tomorrow.

Although weather experts downgraded the terrifying storm's threat rating from five to four last night, they said winds and rain would still be worse than Hurricane Katrina that ravaged New Orleans three weeks ago.

More than a million people are fleeing the US gulf coast with a wall of water up to 20 feet high expected.

But three North-East businessmen are trapped in Houston, Texas, and last night they admitted there was no choice but to sit it out.

Andrew Wright, 45, and Ian Brown, 42, from Darlington, and their colleague Graeme Cole, 29, from Durham City, have been told they can't leave their hotel.

Although mandatory evacuations have taken place in parts of Texas and Louisiana, officials say it is now too late to escape.

Heavy traffic, fuel and food shortages are slowing the mass evacuation down and it is now safer to stay put.

The three men are on the tenth floor of Houston's Holiday Inn and have taken advice to stay where they are.

Mr Wright said: "We're all a bit worried to be honest but we're trying to make light of it.

"It's a bit surreal at the moment as we're just sat here twiddling our thumbs.

"It's a beautiful day outside, it's about 100 degrees and looks like you could just have a good game of golf.

"It's hard to imagine it all could change."

The trio work for Darlington company Stapleton International, an insurance claims consultants.

They had been working in Houston helping rigs get repaired in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

They have been told they are safer in their hotel as roads are blocked out of the city as hundreds of thousands of people are attempting to flee the hurricane.

Traffic leading out of Houston is bumper-to-bumper for up to 100 miles north of the city.

Petrol stations are running out of fuel and shoppers have emptied grocery store shelves of non-perishable items.

When Mr Wright and his colleagues visited the local Wal Mart supermarket to get supplies for when the hurricane hits, they found all the water had been bought up.

The men must make do with lemonade and water still left in the hotel as well as crisps and doughnuts which they were able to buy.

Mr Wright said there have been warnings of a wall of water up to 20 feet high.

The water is expected to reach up to 35 miles inland and, although Houston is 50 miles inland, it is still expected to feel the brunt of the wind and rain.

Low-lying areas of the city have already been evacuated and Houston's mayor Bill White has warned that there are not enough government vehicles to help with the evacuation and has urged friends and neighbours to help each other.

Mr Wright added: "Everybody's a bit worried, it's not just us, especially with Hurricane Katrina being here three weeks ago.

"The hotel's absolutely packed out, many of the people are refugees from New Orleans.

"I've seen people pushing their cars to save fuel, a journey to the airport which normally takes 40 minutes is taking eight hours.

"The roads are just packed with cars, there are eight lanes which are not moving.

"They've stopped a lot of people travelling, otherwise people are still going to be in their cars when it hits."

The hurricane is stronger than Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans. It is expected to have come down to a category three - meaning winds up to 130 mph - by the time it comes ashore.

Hurricane Katrina was a category two storm by the time it came ashore.

To speed the evacuation out of the nation's fourth-largest city, Governor Rick Perry halted all southbound traffic into Houston along Interstate 45 and took the unprecedented stop of opening all eight lanes to northbound traffic out of the city for 125 miles.

The road is the primary evacuation route north from Houston and Galveston.

Police officers along the highways carried petrol to help people get out of town.

Forecasters have predicted the hurricane will come ashore along the central Texas coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi, with up to 15 inches of rain in places.

Hurricane-force winds extend up to 70 miles from the centre of the storm.

A slight rightward turn could prove devastating to the fractured levees protecting New Orleans and the city is on high alert.

Houston mayor Bill White said: "Now is not a time for warnings. Now is a time for action."