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Running from Rita saved lives

Residents try to get to their homes by wading or boating through floodwaters in the wake of Hurricane Rita on Sunday morning in Carlyss, La.
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Residents try to get to their homes by wading or boating through floodwaters in the wake of Hurricane Rita on Sunday morning in Carlyss, La. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Julia Silverman Associated Press

PERRY, La. – For the storm-shattered Gulf Coast, the images were all too familiar: Tiny fishing villages in splinters. Refrigerators and coffins bobbing in floodwaters. Helicopters and rescue boats making house-to-house searches for residents stranded on the rooftops.

But as the misery wrought by Hurricane Rita came into clearer view – particularly in the hard-to-reach marsh towns along the Texas-Louisiana line – the lasting signs that emerged a day after the storm’s 120-mph landfall were of an epic evacuation that saved countless lives, and of destruction that fell short of the Katrina-sized fears.

“As bad as it could have been, we came out of this in pretty good shape,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said after taking a helicopter tour Sunday.

Even with nearly 1 million in the region without electricity, some coastal towns flooded to the rooftops and the prospect of nearly 3 million evacuated residents pouring back onto the highways for home, the news was overwhelmingly positive.

Petrochemical plants that supply a quarter of the nation’s gasoline 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 25 inches 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 populous stretches of the coast.

Along the central Louisiana coastline, where Rita’s heavy rains and storm-surge flooding pushed water up to 9 feet in homes, weary evacuees slowly returned to see the damage. Staring at the ground, shoulders stooped, clearly exhausted, many came back with stories of deer stuck on levees and cows swimming through seawater miles from the Gulf of Mexico.

“All I got now is my kids and my motorhome,” said Tracy Savage, whose house in rural Vermilion Parish was 4 feet underwater. The 33-year-old diesel technician was able to salvage a toolbox and a few life vests, but not much more. “We’ve never had this much water, we’ve just never seen it.”

More than 100 boats gassed up at an Abbeville car dealership Sunday before venturing out on search-and-rescue missions to find hundreds of residents believed to have tried to ride out Rita. About 500 people were rescued from high waters along the Louisiana coast in the immediate aftermath of the storm, and emergency calls were still coming in from far-flung areas near the gulf.

“The flooding is still extensive,” said Michael Bertrand of the Vermilion Parish Office of Emergency Preparedness, adding that water was actually creeping into areas that were spared flooding Saturday. “We’ll be going back through there to see if there’s anybody left.”

During a helicopter tour, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, whose Cajun roots run deep in the region, got her first look at the hardest-hit areas.

In Cameron Parish, just across the state line 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. Debris was strewn for miles by water or wind. Holly Beach, a popular vacation 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 bleachers and goal posts jutting from what had become part of the Gulf of Mexico.

“In Cameron, there’s really hardly anything left. Everything is just obliterated,” said Blanco, who has asked the federal government for $34 billion to aid in storm recovery.

Added Maj. Gen. Bennett Landreneau, head of the Louisiana National Guard: “This is terrible. Whole communities are gone.”

Some bayou residents who arrived with boats in hopes of getting back in to survey the damage to their property were turned away by state officials. But all it took was a scan of the Intracoastal waterway to see a hint of the damage: refrigerators and even a few coffins from the area’s above-ground cemeteries bobbing in the water.

After a briefing with Blanco in Baton Rouge, President 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.”

Just across the state line, Texas’ Perry toured the badly hit refinery towns of Beaumont and Port Arthur area by air Sunday.

“Look at that,” he said, pointing to a private aircraft hangar with a roof that was half collapsed and half strewn across the surrounding field. “It looks like a blender just went over the top of it.”

He said the region has been secured by law enforcement but does not have water and sewer services available. He urged residents to stay out for now, though the statewide 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 contrast to Katrina, with its death toll of more than 1,000, only two deaths had been attributed to Rita by Sunday – a person killed in north-central Mississippi when a tornado spawned by the hurricane overturned a mobile home and an east Texas man struck by a fallen tree. Two dozen evacuees were killed before the storm hit in a fatal bus fire near Dallas.

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 Sunday, today and Tuesday to avoid the massive gridlock that accompanied the exodus out.

But while the return appeared to be going well Sunday with traffic moving briskly, not all Texans were happy with a slow return home. John Willy, the top elected official in Brazoria County, southwest of Houston, said he would ignore the state’s staggered return plan.

“I am not going to wait for our neighbors to the north to get home and take a nap, before I ask our good people to come home,” he said in a statement. “Our people are tired of the state’s plan! They have a plan too and it’s real simple. They plan to come home when they want.”

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