Relief as Rita's wrath proves less fierce than Katrina's

The damage inflicted by Hurricane Rita paled in comparison to Katrina, Texas Governor Rick Perry said today – but urged evacuees to stay where they are until local officials say it’s all right to return.

The damage inflicted by Hurricane Rita paled in comparison to Katrina, Texas Governor Rick Perry said today – but urged evacuees to stay where they are until local officials say it’s all right to return.

In southern Louisiana, rescue crews searched for people still stranded by floodwaters. Hundreds may still be trapped in Vermilion Parish’s far-flung regions near the Gulf of Mexico, according to Jason Harmon, spokesman for the Abbeville Fire Department.

Officials said calls for help were still coming in.

Perry, speaking before he took a helicopter tour of the Beaumont area, said the region hit by the hurricane has been secured by law enforcement, but does not have water and sewer services available.

He hoped to get a better aerial view later today, but said there was mostly high wind and water damage.

“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 one death had been reported by last night. One person was killed in Mississippi when a tornado spawned by the hurricane overturned a mobile home.

During the evacuation, a bus caught fire south of Dallas while stuck in traffic, killing as many as 24 nursing home residents.

Rita downed trees, sparked fires across the hurricane zone and swamped Louisiana shoreline towns with a 15-foot 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 Coast Guard helicopter plucked the battered family from the tree yesterday 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.

“There are almost as many trees down as there are standing,” said Jack Jett, chief sheriff’s deputy.

Search and rescue teams working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived late last night 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 today.

More than 1.3 million people were without electricity last night, most in Texas, but also in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, local utility companies said.

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 Corporation 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.

Late last night, two environmental cleanup workers spread booms and oil absorbent pads along a perimeter fence at the refinery. Knee-deep floodwaters were stained with dark brown crude oil, and the odour of petroleum hung thick in the air.

Rita roared ashore before dawn yesterday 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 south-east of Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Some of the worst flooding occurred along the Louisiana coast, where floodwaters were 9 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.

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. An Army Corps of Engineers spokesman said that the re-flooded areas could be pumped dry within a week after levee damage is repaired, far sooner than initially predicted.

Some New Orleans residents who had evacuated to Houston because of Katrina were forced to move again as Rita approached.

“We’re tired of being pushed from place to place,” said Cora Washington, 59, as she and her family sat on bunks in Texas A&M University’s basketball arena in College Station. “We want to try to go back to New Orleans and pick up the pieces.”

Texas officials planned for an orderly return of the nearly 3 million people who had fled ahead of the menacing storm, setting up regions that would reopen to evacuees today, Monday and Tuesday.

President George W. 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.”

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