Residents along the Texas and Louisiana coasts began clearing away debris today as crews worked to restore electricity to more than one million customers in four states after Hurricane Rita tore through the US Gulf Coast, causing less damage than feared.
The residents breathed a sigh of relief that the devastation caused by the once-dreaded storm was less severe than that caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Texas Governor Rick Perry said he saw plenty of damage during a helicopter tour over the Beaumont-Port Arthur area on Saturday, but added: “There’s none of that just-down-to-the-foundation devastation that we saw out of Mississippi” after Katrina.
Rita tore down trees, 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.
Adam Suire, 77, said he climbed into an oak tree on Friday night with his wife, daughter and son-in-law when Rita flooded his house south of Erath, Louisiana. A coastguard helicopter plucked the battered family from the tree on Saturday afternoon.
In Jasper County, within the Piney Woods of East Texas, trees lying over the roads were making it difficult for sheriff’s deputies to check on people.
Search and rescue teams working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived late on Saturday in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in a convoy of about a dozen vehicles loaded with water, ready-to-eat meals, medical supplies and fuel. The crews planned to get some rest before getting to work just after dawn today.
By contrast to Katrina, with its death toll of more than 1,000, only one death had been reported by Saturday night. One person was killed in Mississippi when a tornado spawned by 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.
Valero Energy Corp. said its 255,000-barrel-per-day Port Arthur refinery sustained significant damage to two cooling towers and a flare stack and would need at least two weeks for repairs.
Rita roared ashore before dawn on Saturday close to the Texas-Louisiana border as a Category 3 hurricane with top winds of 120 mph and warnings of up to 25 inches of rain. By early today, it was a tropical depression with top sustained winds of 20 mph located about 20 miles southeast of Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Some of the worst flooding occurred along the Louisiana coast, where floodwaters were nine feet deep near the town of Abbeville. In Cameron Parish, sheriff’s deputies watched appliances and what appeared to be parts of homes swirling in the waters of the Intracoastal Waterway.
About 500 people were rescued from high waters south of New Orleans, some by helicopters. Another 15 to 25 people were reported stranded farther west along the shoreline of Vermilion Parish, but searches were postponed until Sunday because of high winds.
Elsewhere, a portion of Interstate 10 over the Calcasieu River in Lake Charles was closed after barges broke loose from their moorings and slammed into the bridge.
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 plug a series of levee breaches.
Texas officials planned for an orderly return of the nearly three million people who had fled ahead of the menacing storm, setting up regions that would reopen to evacuees on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.
President 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 on Saturday.
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.”