- The Washington Times - Monday, September 26, 2005

PERRY, La. — The marsh towns of southwestern Louisiana hit by Hurricane Rita yesterday began taking stock of flooding and damage comparable to that brought elsewhere by Katrina, as Texas began returning to normal yesterday.

The first images yesterday from the coasts of southwestern and central Louisiana, one day after Rita came ashore with 120 mph winds, 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.

“All I got now is my kids and my motor home,” said Tracy Savage, whose house in rural Vermilion Parish was under 4 feet of water. He 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.”

“In Cameron [Parish], there’s really hardly anything left. Everything is just obliterated,” said Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, who took a helicopter tour of the region yesterday and asked the federal government for $34 billion to aid in storm recovery.

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

But 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 being repopulated yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Airlines resumed service to Houston, and returning residents were driving briskly over the freeways as the nation’s fourth-largest city flickered back to life. More gas stations offered fuel, and supermarkets, drugstores and restaurants opened their doors.

At Pappas Seafood, a sign read, “Come on in, open at 11. Incredible!” The marquee at Kenneally’s Irish Pub read: “Rita who?”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry took a helicopter tour of the badly hit refinery towns of Beaumont and Port Arthur yesterday. He said the region has been secured by law enforcement, but does not have water and sewerage services.

“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,” Mr. Perry said. “As bad as it could have been, we came out of this in pretty good shape.”

Largely because of where Rita hit and because residents with fresh memories of Katrina heeded evacuation orders, known deaths remained minimal. One person died in north-central Mississippi when a tornado spawned by the hurricane overturned a mobile home, and an east Texas man was killed when struck by a fallen tree.

Even with about 1.5 million in the region without electricity, 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.

Some of the nation’s largest retailers reported yesterday that most of their stores forced to close because of Hurricane Rita have reopened and that they are restocking their shelves as they wait for residents to return home.

“While there was a disruption, it won’t be cataclysmic” for merchants, said Scott Krugman, a spokesman at the Washington-based National Retail Federation. “This should have a minimum impact on nationwide sales.”

Wal-Mart, which closed 155 facilities Saturday morning, reopened more than 100 by today, said company spokeswoman Linda Blakely. Target had reopened 28 of the 32 stores in the Gulf Coast region that it closed Saturday morning. Similar figures were reported by Walgreen’s drugstores and Home Depot home-improvement stores.

“We were able to open within 24 hours,” said Carolyn Brookter, a Target spokeswoman.

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.

Still, about 500 people were rescued from high waters along the Louisiana coast, and emergency calls were still coming in from far-flung areas near the Gulf.

In Cameron Parish, just across the state line from Texas and in the path of Rita’s harshest winds east of the eye, 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. Fishing communities were reduced to splinters, with concrete slabs the only evidence that homes once stood there.

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.

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

After a briefing with Mrs. 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.”

Crude oil and gasoline futures traded lower yesterday, a response to news that damage to refineries was relatively light.

The 255,000-barrel-per-day Valero Energy Corp. plant in Port Arthur appeared to be the most heavily damaged, facing at least two weeks of repairs from significant damage to two cooling towers and a flare stack.

Still, a rapid recovery for refiners hinges on power being restored to parts of Texas and Louisiana where facilities are concentrated.

The area’s primary utility, Entergy Corp., said 271 high-voltage transmission lines were down and 275 substations out of service, and there was no immediate timeline of when power would be restored. Residents of Beaumont have been told that it could be as long as a month.

In New Orleans, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers moved rocks and sandbags into the holes that broke open in the Industrial Canal levee as Rita closed in, flooding the already devastated lower 9th Ward.

Workers think that once the breaches are closed, the 9th Ward can be pumped dry in a week, far more quickly than initially projected.

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