By JULIA SILVERMAN, Associated Press Writer
For the storm-shattered Gulf Coast, the images were all too familiar:
Tiny fishing villages in splinters. Refrigerators and coffins bobbing
in floodwaters. Helicopters and rescue boats making house-to-house
searches of residents stranded on the rooftops.
But as the misery wrought by Hurricane Rita came into clearer view --
particularly in the hard-to-reach marsh towns along the Texas-
Louisiana line -- the lasting signs that emerged a day after the
storm's 120-mph landfall were of an epic evacuation that saved
countless lives, and of destruction that fell short of the
"As bad as it could have been, we came out of this in pretty good
shape," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said after taking a helicopter tour
Even with nearly 1 million in the region without electricity, some
coastal towns flooded to the rooftops and the prospect of nearly 3
million evacuated residents pouring back onto the highways for home,
the news was overwhelmingly positive.
Petrochemical plants that supply a quarter of the nation's gasoline
suffered only a glancing blow, with just one major plant facing weeks
of repairs. The reflooding in New Orleans from levee breaks was
isolated mostly to areas already destroyed and deserted, and could be
pumped out in as little as a week. And contrary to dire forecasts,
Rita and its heavy rains moved quickly north as a tropical depression
instead of parking over the South for days and dumping a predicted 25
inches of torrential rains.
Most significantly, deaths were minimal -- with only two reported so
far -- largely because residents with fresh memories of Katrina heeded
evacuation orders and the storm followed a path that spared Houston
and more populous stretches of the coast.
Along the central Louisiana coastline, where Rita's heavy rains and
storm-surge flooding pushed water up to 9 feet in homes and into
fields of sugarcane and rice, weary evacuees slowly returned to see
the damage. Staring at the ground, shoulders stooped, clearly
exhausted, many came back with stories of deer stuck on levees and
cows swimming through seawater miles from the Gulf of Mexico.
"All I got now is my kids and my motorhome," said Tracy Savage, whose
house in rural Vermilion Parish was four feet underwater. The
33-year-old diesel technician was able to salvage a toolbox and a few
life vests, but not much more. "We've never had this much water, we've
just never seen it."
More than 100 boats gassed up at an Abbeville car dealership Sunday
before venturing out on search-and-rescue missions to find hundreds of
residents believed to have tried to ride out Rita.
An estimated 1,000 people were rescued in Vermilion Parish, said Chief
Sheriff's Deputy Kirk Frith. About 50 people remained on a 911
checklist, and Frith said authorities would probably conclude rescue
operations by Monday and begin damage assessment.
Authorities were having trouble keeping residents with boats from
entering the parish. "How are you going to stop them from going to
their home to check on their dog or something like that?'" Frith
During a helicopter tour, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, whose Cajun
roots run deep in the region, got her first look at the hardest-hit
In Cameron Parish, just across the state line from Texas and in the
path of Rita's harshest winds east of the eye, fishing communities
were reduced to splinters, with concrete slabs the only evidence that
homes once stood there. Debris was strewn for miles by water or
wind. Holly Beach, a popular vacation and fishing spot, was gone. Only
the stilts that held houses off the ground remained.
A line of shrimp boats steamed through an oil sheen to reach
Hackberry, only to find homes and camps had been flattened. In one
area, there was a flooded high school football field, its bleachers
and goal posts jutting from what had become part of the Gulf of
"In Cameron, there's really hardly anything left. Everything is just
obliterated," said Blanco, who has asked the federal government for
$34 billion to aid in storm recovery.
Added Maj. Gen. Bennett Landreneau, head of the Louisiana National
Guard: "This is terrible. Whole communities are gone."
Some bayou residents who arrived with boats in hopes of getting back
in to survey the damage to their property were turned away by state
officials. But all it took was a scan of the Intracoastal waterway to
see a hint of the damage: refrigerators and even a few coffins from
the area's above-ground cemeteries bobbing in the water.
After a briefing with Blanco in Baton Rouge, President Bush said: "I
know the people of this state have been through a lot. We ask for
God's blessings on them and their families."
Just across the state line, Texas' Perry toured the badly hit refinery
towns of Beaumont and Port Arthur area by air Sunday.
"Look at that," he said, pointing to a private aircraft hangar with a
roof that was half collapsed and half strewn across the surrounding
field. "It looks like a blender just went over the top of it."
He said the region has been secured by law enforcement, but does not
have water and sewer services available. He urged residents to stay
out for now, though the statewide picture was better.
"Even though the people right here in Beaumont and Port Arthur and
this part of Orange County really got whacked, the rest of the state
missed a bullet," Perry said.
In contrast to Katrina, with its death toll of more than 1,000, only
two deaths had been attributed to Rita by Sunday -- a person killed in
north-central Mississippi when a tornado spawned by the hurricane
overturned a mobile home and an east Texas man struck by a fallen
tree. Two dozen evacuees were killed before the storm hit in a fatal
bus fire near Dallas.
In Houston, which along with coastal Galveston was spared the brunt of
Rita, officials set up a voluntary, staggered plan for an "orderly
migration" with different areas going home Sunday, Monday and Tuesday
to avoid the massive gridlock that accompanied the exodus out.
Traffic was bumper-to-bumper in the southbound lanes of Interstate 45
north of Houston on Sunday evening, with a seemingly endless stream of
charter buses, cars and sport utility vehicles clogging the highway
and adjacent access roads.
Gasoline containers were strapped to the roofs of many vehicles, while
police officers stationed every few miles helped stranded drivers.
John Willy, the top elected official in Brazoria County, southwest of
Houston, said he would ignore the state's staggered return plan.
"I am not going to wait for our neighbors to the north to get home and
take a nap, before I ask our good people to come home," he said in a
statement. "Our people are tired of the state's plan! They have a
plan too and it's real simple. They plan to come home when they want."
Crude oil and gasoline futures traded lower Sunday, a response to news
that damage to refineries was relatively light. The 255,000-barrel-per-
day Valero Energy Corp. plant in Port Arthur appeared to be the most
heavily damaged, facing at least two weeks of repairs from significant
damage to two cooling towers and a flare stack.
Still, a rapid recovery for refiners hinges on power being restored to
parts of Texas and Louisiana where facilities are concentrated. The
area's primary utility, Entergy Corp., said 271 high-voltage
transmission lines were down and 275 substations out of service, and
there was no immediate timeline of when power would be restored.
Residents of Beaumont have been told it could be as long as a month.
Also, most telephone lines in the area are down; no estimates on
dates for restoral of service.
In New Orleans, the U.S. Corps of Engineers moved rocks and sandbags
into the holes that broke open in the Industrial Canal levee as Rita
closed in, flooding the already devastated Lower Ninth Ward. Workers
believe that once the breaches are closed, the Ninth Ward can be
pumped dry in a week, far more quickly than initially projected.
With most of the city spared significant new damage from Rita, Mayor
Ray Nagin immediately renewed his plan to allow some residents to
return to drier parts of the city. Those areas -- including the
once-raucous French Quarter -- could eventually support a population of
at least half ot its pre-Katrina population of about 500,000
Associated Press writers Liz Austin, Matt Curry, Brett Martel, Erin McClam,
Adam Nossiter, Doug Simpson and Tim Whitmire contributed to this report.
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.
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