Texans are returning home today after 120mph Hurricane Rita failed to cause the feared Katrina-sized destruction.
“As bad as it could have been, we came out of this in pretty good shape,” Texas Governor Rick Perry said after taking a helicopter tour of the area struck by Rita on Saturday.
Even with nearly one million in the region without electricity, some coastal towns flooded to the rooftops and the prospect of nearly three million evacuated residents pouring back on to the highways to head for home, the news was overwhelmingly positive.
Petrochemical plants that supply a quarter of the US’s petrol 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 25in 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 heavily populated stretches of the coast.
Along the central Louisiana coastline, where Rita’s heavy rains and storm-surge flooding pushed water up to 9ft in homes, weary evacuees slowly returned yesterday to see the damage.
In Cameron Parish, Louisiana, just across the state border 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.
Holly Beach, a popular holiday 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 goal posts jutting from what had become part of the Gulf of Mexico.
President George 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.”
Mr Perry urged Texas residents to stay out for now, though the 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 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 yesterday, later today or tomorrow to avoid the massive gridlock that accompanied the exodus out.