By Matt Kelley, Richard Wolf and Oren Dorell, USA TODAY
Here in Cajun country, where signs in French and English are standing
in water and shrimp boats have been tossed onto land, Hurricane Rita
brought the Gulf of Mexico right into almost everyone's home.
"Now our concern is trying to save what we want to save and clean up
and try to find some way to start over again," Tonya Etier said Monday
as she stood in her water-stained kitchen. More than 2 feet of water
flooded her house Friday night when seawater pushed by Rita's 120-mph
winds burst through a nearby levee and swamped the town.
Her house smells of bleach. Furniture, CDs and other items are drying
on the kitchen table.
Similar scenes of cleaning up, tallying damage and hoping for recovery
played out Monday along Louisiana's marshy coast.
Lake Charles, among the cities Rita hit hardest, remained closed to
residents and without power as emergency workers turned from rescue
operations to repairs.
Trees blocked streets and sprawled across damaged roofs. Power lines
lay toppled and gas pumps uprooted. Tall office buildings had
shattered windows, and smaller stores were in shambles. An Allstate
Insurance office stood exposed to the elements, its walls turned to
To the south in Cameron Parish, home to about 10,000 people along the
Gulf of Mexico, floodwaters had not receded. The area, which includes
a national wildlife refuge, was "devastated," said Hal McMillin,
president of the Police Jury, the county commission in Calcasieu
Parish, which includes Lake Charles.
Power company officials described damage as worse than that caused by
Hurricane Katrina last month. About 120 transmission lines and 125
substations were knocked out in the region, said Renae Conley,
president of Entergy Louisiana. She said much of the power system will
have to be rebuilt, not repaired. Likewise, telephone company officials
say the damage is actually worse than that caused by Katrina, two
The good news was that apparently no one died in Louisiana, and few
suffered serious injuries. Officials attributed that to widespread
evacuations. An estimated 95% of the residents of Calcasieu Parish got
"It is very surprising," Lt. Remy Broussard of Louisiana Department of
Wildlife and Fisheries Enforcement said of the small number of
casualties. "It's a direct result of Katrina."
His teams searched in boats and helicopters Monday for people trapped
in their homes and found none, although some remote areas along rivers
remained to be searched. "Without a doubt, there would have been a lot
more injuries and deaths had more people remained," Broussard said.
Shrimp industry takes hit
Rita's storm surge reached about 15 feet in places along Louisiana's
coast and blew at least a half-dozen holes in levees amid the lakes,
canals and bayous.
In Montegut, (pronounced MOHN-te-goo), Rita's floods left shrimp boats
marooned on roadways, people perched on roofs and cattle stranded
neck-deep in brackish water. A stream of military and civilian
helicopters hauled massive sandbags to drop into breaches in levees
that normally protect the town from flooding.
Residents worry that the flooding will cripple the area's main
businesses: shrimp, cattle, sugar cane and oil.
"I don't think I'd want to eat what's in that water," said shrimper
Darrell Billiot, 58, Etier's father-in-law. The season for white
shrimp -- regarded by locals as tastier than brown shrimp, the other
dominant species -- should run August through December, but the boats
haven't been able to go out much for nearly a month.
Authorities warned people to evacuate ahead of the storm, and they
warned them again just before and after the levee gave way. Billiot
felt he had nowhere to go.
"I was raised in this water, and I'll die in it, I guess," he said
with a shrug.
On a nearby waterway, Bayou Petit Caillou, the town of Chauvin was
swamped. Authorities and neighbors evacuated stranded residents by
boat Saturday. By Monday, the water had receded, but not enough to
leave most homes dry.
Robert Taylor, 61, spent most of the day waiting for the water to drop
so he could drive to his home and inspect the damage.
"That's the Gulf of Mexico right there," he said, pointing at
floodwaters flowing over the highway through the town. "This is worse
than it's been in 50 years. Places are flooded here that never flooded
Caught off guard
To the west in Lake Charles, Carla Pratt's family had a horrible
decision to make when they realized Hurricane Rita was bearing down on
their home and they had nowhere to go: To whom should they strap her
granddaughter, Sarah, in case a friend's brick home where they sought
shelter blew apart?
Like many other residents of this low-lying city, they were caught off
guard by Rita's turn to the north Friday night and did not have time
to flee. They decided to tie the 5-month-old baby to her father,
although he was not the biggest and strongest person in the house.
"We'd rather her be with one parent in case something bad happened to
the other," Pratt said.
All the family survived when Rita thrashed ashore early Saturday, but Pratt,
39, and her son lost their newly bought mobile homes. Pratt's was knocked
off its cinder block posts, and the roof is leaking. The walls of her son's
home came apart from the floor of the trailer, she said.
On Monday, the National Guard was distributing a day's supply of food,
water and ice to storm victims.
Some of those who didn't get out before Rita struck described horrific
winds and rains lasting for several hours.
"It was kind of scary," said Georgia Kimble, 16, as she waited at
Christus St. Patrick Hospital for her mother to be treated for an
asthma attack. "Everything just came in at one time, like whoosh."
Ray Thisius, 52, helped evacuate the retirement center where he works,
then stayed behind with about 15 staff members because of heavy
traffic. All night long, windows blew out and trees fell, striking the
center's roof and cars parked outside.
"It felt like you were in the end of a tunnel, and the wind's rushing
at you," Thisius said. "I'm running away the next time, whether I have
to ride a bicycle or take a bus. I'm getting out of here."
Wolf and Dorell reported from Lake Charles, La.
Copyright 2005 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.