Three million Americans evacuated before Hurricane Rita pummelled east Texas and the Louisiana coast, were urged not to hurry home today.
“Be patient, stay put,” said Texas Governor Rick Perry. “If you are in a safe place with food, water, bedding, you are better remaining there for the time being.”
In any other hurricane season, Rita might have seemed devastating. It knocked out power for more than a million customers, sparked fires across the hurricane zone and swamped Louisiana shoreline towns with a 15ft storm surge that required daring boat and helicopter rescues of hundreds of people.
But the new storm came in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, with its 1,000-plus death toll, cataclysmic flooding of New Orleans and staggering destruction in Mississippi.
By contrast, Rita spared Houston, New Orleans and other major cities a direct hit. The only reported death was in Mississippi, where one person was killed when a tornado that spun off the remains of the hurricane overturned a mobile home.
“The damage is not as serious as we had expected it to be,” said David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “The evacuations worked.”
Damage to the vital concentration of oil refineries along the coast appeared relatively light, although industry officials said it was too early to assess whether there would be an impact on oil prices.
Rita roared ashore yesterday morning close to the Texas-Louisiana border as a Category 3 hurricane with top winds of 120mph and warnings of up to 25in of rain. By mid-afternoon, it was downgraded to a tropical storm with top sustained winds of 50mph as it moved slowly through east Texas toward Shreveport, Louisiana.
The region was largely evacuated ahead of Rita, but some residents stayed behind and were rescued by helicopter.
New Orleans, devastated by Katrina barely three weeks ago, endured a second straight day of new flooding that could seriously disrupt recovery plans. The Army Corps of Engineers said it would need at least two weeks to pump water from the most heavily flooded neighbourhoods – notably the impoverished Lower Ninth Ward – after crews plugged a series of levee breaches.
President George Bush, mindful of criticism the federal government was slow to respond to Hurricane Katrina three weeks ago, visited the Texas emergency operations centre in Austin yesterday.
Like other officials, Bush urged citizens not to prematurely assume the danger was over.
“Even though the storm has passed the coastline, the situation is still dangerous because of potential flooding,” he said. “People who are safe now ought to remain in safe conditions.”