Gulf Coast states start cleanup after hurricane leaves considerable damage BEAUMONT, Texas - Rattled by Hurricane Rita, residents along the Texas and Louisiana coasts began clearing away debris as power crews worked to restore electricity to more than 1 million customers in four states.
They also breathed a sigh of relief that the devastation caused by the once-dreaded storm was less severe than that caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Saturday he saw plenty of damage during a helicopter tour over the Beaumont-Port Arthur area, but added: “There’s none of that just-down-to-the-foundation devastation that we saw out of Mississippi” after Katrina.
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 Friday night with his wife, daughter and son-in-law when Rita flooded his house south of Erath, La. A Coast Guard helicopter plucked the battered family from the tree 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.
“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 Saturday in Lake Charles, La., 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 not long after dawn Sunday.
'The evacuations worked'
More than 460,000 CenterPoint Energy customers in Texas were without power as of 8 p.m. EDT Saturday, according to the company’s count. Entergy spokesman Robert Lesley said 813,544 customers were without power Saturday night in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. TXU Electric Delivery said about 100,000 customers in East Texas lost power.
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 R. David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “The evacuations worked.”
In Beaumont, Texas, where the U.S. oil age began with the Spindletop oil well in 1901, warehouses and other light buildings all but disappeared, although a feared storm surge never occurred, officials said.
“This is an emotional and devastating experience,” said Capt. Melissa Ownby of the Beaumont Police Department. “We’ve had hurricanes, but we’ve never had this much devastation.”
Authorities used military helicopters and an air-conditioned bus Saturday night to move some of the 83 nursing home residents from Beaumont who had been stranded at an elementary school in Fred without power since Friday afternoon.
“It’s scary,” said Jack Fair, 68, who is undergoing rehabilitation for a concussion. “It’s nobody’s fault. There’s just too much going on.” Fair said he was more concerned about fellow residents who were afraid of the dark.
Oil refineries largely spared
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.
Late Saturday, 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 odor of petroleum hung thick in the air.
Rita roared ashore at 3:30 a.m. EDT 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 Sunday, it was a tropical depression with top sustained winds of 20 mph located about 20 miles southeast of Hot Springs, Ark.
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. 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 flooding in New Orleans
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 neighborhoods — notably the impoverished Lower Ninth Ward — after crews plug a series of levee breaches.
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 cots 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 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 center 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.”
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.