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25 September 2005

U.S. Gulf Region Begins Recovery from Hurricane Rita

Federal, local authorities launch large-scale effort to rebuild damaged areas

By Howard Cincotta
Washington File Special Correspondent

Washington -- As Hurricane Rita dissipated into a series of heavy rainstorms, communities throughout the coastal regions of Texas and Louisiana assessed the damage and began the lengthy process of recovery and rebuilding.

Rita hit shore early Saturday morning near the Texas-Louisiana border as a Category Three hurricane with sustained winds greater than 190 kilometers an hour.  It triggered storm surges and flooding that caused large-scale damage, but lacked the sheer destructive power of Hurricane Katrina, which inundated New Orleans and destroyed parts of the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf coasts just three weeks earlier.

On a helicopter tour of his state, Texas governor Rick Perry told the Associated Press that he saw serious damage, but "none of that just down-to-the-foundation devastation that we saw out of Mississippi" after Katrina.

President Bush, who monitored the storm from a defense facility in Colorado, traveled to Austin and San Antonio, Texas, and later to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to monitor the federal government's relief efforts.

""Nobody asks for these things, but when they come, we have a duty," Bush said Saturday at the Texas Emergency Operations Center in Austin. "I'm really here to let the folks in Texas know that the federal government knows we have a responsibility to support you in the mission of saving lives -- first and foremost -- and then help to rebuild their lives."

The federal government launched a large-scale response to Hurricane Rita.  According to a fact sheet from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), federal authorities positioned truckloads of ice, water and prepared meals throughout the region; deployed large numbers of medical assistance and urban search and rescue teams; and provided hundreds of buses for evacuation.

The Coast Guard, for example, with 19 planes and 36 helicopters in the region, is conducting search and rescue missions as well as evacuating patients from hospitals and other facilities, DHS said.

The Defense Department reported evacuating more than 4,000 patients from facilities in Beaumont and Houston, Texas, and from Lake Charles, Louisiana.  The U.S. Air Force rescued five individuals stranded by the storm and conducted dozens of surveillance and search and rescue missions.

On CBS's Face the Nation, Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen, overall director of Hurricane Relief Operations, said, "The search and operation portion of this is still ongoing, but substantially pared down.  We're really focused now on getting as much supplies into this area as we can."

In sharp contrast to Katrina's death toll of more than 1,000, only one death to date has been directly attributed to Rita -- from a storm-related tornado in Mississippi.  However, 24 evacuees from a Houston nursing home died Friday when their bus caught fire on a gridlocked highway.

Many officials attribute the remarkably few fatalities to the enormous evacuation effort that cities and towns undertook in advance of Rita's landfall, even though it caused massive traffic jams that were exacerbated as hundreds of motorists ran out of gas.

"From the direct impact of the hurricane," Governor Perry said on NBC's Meet the Press, it appears at this particular point that [the death toll in Texas] is zero.  I know that's a miraculous number when you had a storm of that size come in with that power....  But the fact of the matter is, we moved two and a half million people with a relatively small amount of problems."

On Fox News Sunday, Perry observed that the Hurricane Rita evacuation was probably the largest in American history in such a short time span.  "We moved over two million people in 36 hours .... You don't just go out and plug up an interstate highway on one side and shift it in an hour or two.  It takes some time, it takes some personnel, but we learned, and I think every city learned something by watching this."

Nevertheless, Hurricane Rita caused widespread damage.  Coastal and low-lying areas directly in the hurricane's direct path predictably suffered the most. 

The coastal town of Port Arthur, Texas, suffered extensive damage as high winds crushed buildings and ripped out power lines and trees, while the storm surge swamped the streets.  Virtually every structure in the town appeared to have suffered some damage, the Associated Press reported.  Fortunately, nearly the entire population evacuated ahead of the storm, and there were no reported fatalities or injuries.

Floodwaters surged through Lake Charles, Louisiana, another of the hardest hit communities, where barges tore lose and slammed into a bridge, closing a key interstate highway, according to the Associated Press.

Agence France Presse reported that the entire town of Erath, Louisiana, population 2,100, remained submerged under more than a meter of water.

"We've got a lot of forces flowing into southwest Louisiana," said Admiral Allen on Face the Nation.  "We have three urban search and rescue teams in Lake Charles, standing by, so it's a unified federal effort in support of the state."

In contrast, the larger cities of Galveston and Houston, Texas, experienced relatively little damage.  "For a storm that 24 hours ago was supposed to be the largest in the history of the Gulf bearing down on Houston, we have come out reasonably well," local county official Robert Eckels told the Houston Chronicle.  

Officials, however, pleaded with residents of Houston and other cities not to rush back home immediately, causing traffic gridlock and in many cases returning to homes that still lack electricity.

New Orleans, Louisiana, suffered both a physical and psychological setback when heavy rains from Hurricane Rita caused newly patched levees to fail, again flooding neighborhoods that that were just drying out from the devastating floods of Katrina.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dumped rock and airlifted sandbags to plug one of the breaches and expected to complete repairs on another by the end of the day Sunday, the Associated Press reported.  Although the levees remain fragile with temporary patches, the Army Corp of Engineers hopes to pump the flooded section of the city dry again within a week.

After a meeting with Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and Corps of Engineers officials in Baton Rouge on Sunday, President Bush said that authorities are "once again pumping the water out of that part of New Orleans ... work has started now, and they can start to drain that part of the city again."

Hurricane Rita plowed directly through one of the nation's major oil refining regions, but experts indicated that -- although refineries and other facilities suffered some damage -- the industry will recover fairly quickly. 

Power outages are widespread, and one of the biggest producers, Valero Energy Corporation said it would take two weeks to a month to repair the damage to its Port Arthur refinery, according to the Associated Press. 

Other oil refiners, especially in the Houston area, reported lesser damage and should be operating sooner.

For more information, see Hurricane Recovery.