- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 25, 2005

BEAUMONT, Texas — Hurricane Rita pummeled east Texas and the Louisiana coast yesterday, triggering floods and demolishing buildings. Residents, however, were relieved that the storm proved far less fierce and deadly than Hurricane Katrina.

Authorities pleaded with roughly 3 million evacuees not to hurry home too soon, fearing more chaos.

“Be patient, stay put,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said. “If you are in a safe place with food, water, bedding, you are better remaining there for the time being.”

In another year, Rita might have looked devastating. It knocked out power for 1.3 million customers in the region, sparked fires across the hurricane zone and swamped the Louisiana shoreline with a 15-foot storm surge forcing dangerous boat and helicopter rescues of hundreds of residents.

But Rita spared Houston, New Orleans and other major cities a direct hit. By last night, the only reported death was in Mississippi, where one person was killed by a tornado that spun off the remains of the hurricane.

By contrast, Katrina punished the region with a death toll of 1,078, cataclysmic flooding of New Orleans and staggering destruction in Mississippi.

“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.”

Still, President Bush declared Texas and Louisiana “major disaster areas” last night.

Authorities detained nine persons for looting in Port Arthur, Texas, and ordered a curfew to prevent an escalation, the mayor 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 effect on oil prices.

Valero Energy Corp. said its 255,000-barrel-per-day Port Arthur refinery took significant damage to two cooling towers and a flare stack and would need at least two weeks for repairs.

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 midafternoon, it was downgraded to a tropical storm with top sustained winds of 50 mph as it moved slowly through east Texas toward Shreveport, La.

Before weakening, Rita showed strength across a broad region between Houston and New Orleans.

In Beaumont, trees of all sizes and power lines were down, street signs were shredded, and one brick wall of an office building had collapsed. Said Dr. Gaylon Gonzalez, a surgeon who spent the night at Christus Hospital St. Elizabeth as Rita arrived: “It sounded like a power washer hitting the windows.”

Some of the worst flooding occurred along the Louisiana coast, where transformers exploded, roofs were torn off and trees uprooted by winds topping 100 mph. Floodwaters were 9 feet deep near the town of Abbeville; farther west in Cameron Parish, sheriff’s deputies watched appliances and what appeared to be parts of homes swirling in the waters of the Intracoastal Waterway.

The region was largely evacuated ahead of Rita, but some residents stayed behind and were rescued by helicopter. Among them were a pregnant woman and her 4-year-old son stranded in Port Lafourche, a Gulf Coast outpost about 60 miles south of New Orleans.

“Most of the town was already under water from Katrina,” said Coast Guard Lt. Roberto Torres, the pilot who airlifted the woman out. “And what wasn’t got flooded by Rita.”

About 500 residents were rescued from high waters south of New Orleans by helicopters. Another 15 to 25 were reported stranded farther west along the shoreline of Vermilion Parish, but searches were postponed until today because of high winds.

Elsewhere, a portion of Interstate 10 over the Calcasieu River in Lake Charles was closed after barges broke loose from moorings and slammed into the bridge.

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 9th 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.”

Though Houston authorities urged residents not to rush home to a city lacking many essential services, inbound roads were already clogging yesterday afternoon. Most stores in Houston were closed, bank machines had no cash, and police were controlling long lines at the few open gas stations.

“Frankly, the fuel is not going to come as quickly as those here might like and those traveling might like,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, Texas Democrat.

As Rita’s winds swept past, several fires broke out in and around Houston, including one in a two-story apartment building that damaged at least eight units.

Several buildings were damaged or destroyed by fire in Galveston, and a blaze broke out before dawn at a shopping complex in Pasadena.

As the sun came up in downtown Beaumont, a port city of 114,000, the few people who stayed behind emerged to find some blown-out windows, damaged roofs, signs twisted and lying in the street and scattered downed trees. There was some standing water but no significant flooding.

In Beaumont’s nine-story Elegante Hotel, wind blew out massive windows in the lobby, bringing down a chandelier and ripping part of the roof off.

“We stayed in a stairwell most of the time,” said Rainey Chretien, who works at the front desk. “I didn’t think it was going to be this bad.”

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