PORT ARTHUR, Texas – Hurricane Rita carved a new path of destruction along the Gulf Coast on Saturday, crushing buildings and flooding vast regions but thankfully falling short of the calamity inflicted by Hurricane Katrina.
At least, so far. Emergency managers worried about monumental problems well inland as the rain-engorged storm lingered over Texas, Arkansas and the Mississippi River Valley.
“It could cause a catastrophic flooding event,” said Jack Colley, Texas’ emergency management coordinator. He expressed concern about an 80-county area covering 64,000 square miles and home to 11.3 million residents.
Late Saturday, water managers in eastern Texas said they had to release water from an overburdened dam at Lake Livingston. They ordered people in several counties to “immediately move to higher ground” and warned that hundreds of homes along the banks of the Trinity River will be flooded later this week.
As it raged ashore earlier Saturday, Rita simultaneously ignited fires and delivered drenching rain. It left more than 1 million people without power. It catapulted seawater ashore. In Louisiana, a place again bearing the brunt of the storm, it compelled daring rescues by boat and helicopter of hundreds of people trapped in flooded homes.
It tormented many people in many places, and damage estimates ranged into the billions of dollars.
One person was killed in Mississippi by a Rita-spawned tornado, the Associated Press reported Saturday night. Still, many residents and authorities expressed a measure of relief.
“It could have been worse in terms of flooding and people dying,” Charles Kelly said as he inspected damage to his downtown dance club in hard-hit Beaumont, Texas. “But we’ve got a lot of cleanup to do before we can say it is over.”
Said R. David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency: “The damage is not as serious as we expected it to be.”
Many oil refineries near or south of Houston, including the largest on the Texas coast, reported no significant damage and announced plans to swiftly return to production, good news for consumers. Several others closer to the storm’s path, however, could be out of service for up to a month.
The main population centers of Houston and Galveston fared quite well, but that created a new problem: Many evacuees rushed back, ignoring the pleas of authorities and complicating access by power crews, medical teams and others crucial workers.
Portions of Interstate 10, Interstate 45 and some state roads were clogged again by midafternoon, just as they were earlier in the week, though this time in the opposite direction.
“Do not come back until word is given by local authorities,” Houston Mayor Bill White said. “This is not the time to return unless you have an essential job. You are endangering others if you do that.”
Though there were no immediate reports of storm-related deaths in Texas or Louisiana, authorities worried about coastal residents and others who defied evacuation orders and decided not to join the 3 million people who retreated inland.
So many trapped residents of Vermilion Parish, in southwest Louisiana, placed urgent calls for help that the sheriff’s office asked everyone with boats to join the rescue effort.
By early afternoon, 150 boats were amassed in the parking lot of a used-car dealership and patrols were under way. “We are confident we are going to be able to get to the majority, if not all of them,” said Maj. Darryl LeBlanc of the Vermilion sheriff’s department.
More water, up to 8 feet of it, poured into some New Orleans neighborhoods that were previously swamped by Katrina and still largely abandoned.
In fishing villages south of that luckless city, rescuers in boats carried hundreds of residents from newly flooded homes to safety.
Elsewhere in Louisiana, floods swirled through downtown Lake Charles, where some buildings collapsed, including one at the airport. A bridge along I-10 near the city was closed after a barge struck it.
Roof damage was evident in Vinton and Parish. Up to 9 feet of water was reported in the coastal parishes of St. Bernard, Terrebonne, Cameron, St. Mary and Vermilion.
Authorities attributed the relatively low level of casualties to the massive evacuation and to forecasts from the National Hurricane Center that on Monday began identifying Texas and Louisiana as likely impact sites and zeroed in early Thursday on east Texas and west Louisiana.
“The evacuations worked,” Paulison said.
Still, 24 people died Friday when a bus carrying them to safety caught fire.
And, during the storm, many felt that their lives were in danger.
“I really didn’t think I was going to make it for a while,” said Joseph Royals, who stayed in Port Arthur, an oil-refining city that ended up directly under Rita’s core. “I was really glad to see first light this morning.”
By no means was the threat over. Paulison warned that most hurricane-related injuries and many deaths occur after the storm passes and during the cleanup phase.
The core of this latest tropical assailant crashed into the coast well before dawn at the mouth of the Sabine River, which sits on the border between Texas and Louisiana. Its sustained winds of 120 mph qualified it as a Category 3 hurricane on the five-category Saffir-Simpson scale.
By contrast, Katrina struck the coast as a 140-mph Category 4 storm on Aug. 29, all but destroying New Orleans and dealing catastrophic damage to the Mississippi cities of Biloxi and Gulfport and other coastal towns.
Regardless of a hurricane’s intensity, every direct strike produces considerable property damage, and Rita was no exception.
More than 12 inches of rain fell over some areas of the region. The storm surge of seawater that accompanies the eye wall swamped coastal areas. Winds demolished some buildings, ripped roofs off many others, and brought down trees and power lines.
In eastern Texas, severe flooding was reported in Port Arthur, Lumberton and other cities. Three feet of water filled several streets in Port Arthur and seeped into many homes.
In Beaumont, stores and homes were destroyed, crushed by Rita’s winds and falling trees, in some cases not much left but piles of girders and bricks.
Ben Verde surveyed the complete destruction of his print shop, once a formidable building. “It’s horrible,” he said, his eyes wide. “I never expected this.”
Across the Sabine River in Orange, La., an industrial area 36 miles upstream from the Gulf of Mexico, the roof of the Orange Baptist Church collapsed into the sanctuary and downed pine trees blocked access to much of the town.
More reports of flooding and other damage were certain to arrive as the squalls passed and communications improved along the coast – and as the storm dropped more rain on the area during the next few days.
Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city, escaped relatively unscathed, with broken glass, local flooding and power outages that affected 600,000 customers.
Galveston, at one point directly under the cross hairs of Rita’s projected track, also dodged the worst of the storm as it passed to the east.
Still, dozens of fires flared sporadically in both cities, the apparent result of downed power lines, blown transformers and lightning. Flames consumed a city block in Galveston’s historic Strand district. Power was out in 75 percent of that city.
Wasting no time, some people who retreated inland earlier in the week began heading back to see what was left of their homes and businesses, despite those pleas from authorities and the near total absence of gasoline supplies.
“Please do not try to come back to the island.” Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said. “Hopefully, in the next couple of days, this island will be cleaned up and we’ll get you home.”
Nevertheless, lines of cars stretched for miles on the far side of the causeway to Galveston, and city officials said all but essential personnel were being turned back.
Later Saturday, state officials announced a phased plan for returning residents, based on the location of their homes, but there were no signs that it was being observed.
Though authorities at all levels seemed better able to cope with the storm and its aftermath this time around, a familiar problem surfaced.
To some extent, emergency coordinators in Texas were working blind Saturday morning, with communications knocked out among state leaders and much of the area impacted by Rita.
The military, criticized as being slow to respond after Katrina struck, this time mustered more than 38,000 National Guard troops from Texas to Florida.
Active-duty military personnel also moved more swiftly this time, establishing a 400-person crisis contingent in San Antonio and placing nearly 10,000 soldiers on alert. Nearly 200 helicopter crews were ready for search and rescue missions, and six naval vessels steamed to the region.
In the end, though, many people throughout the region seemed shell-shocked by two major hurricanes in less than a month. As the storm rumbled, more than 10,000 evacuees found themselves in the inland Texas city of Lufkin, pondering their situation.
Some had fled twice, first from Katrina, next from Rita. They called themselves “double whammies.”
“My mom called me and said we had to evacuate again and I said to her, ‘Are you kidding?’ ” said Kimberly Dufrene, 28, of Metaire, La. “I feel like I’m having a nervous breakdown. It’s so hard, one thing after another.”