Storm Pounds Gulf Area

Damage widespread but far less devastating than expected

Hurricane Rita

September 25, 2005|By HOWARD WITT AND LOLLY BOWEAN | HOWARD WITT AND LOLLY BOWEAN,Chicago Tribune

LAKE CHARLES, LA. // As bad as it was, Rita was no Katrina. Lightning, it turned out, did not strike twice.

Hurricane Rita pounded east Texas and the Gulf Coast of Louisiana yesterday, causing widespread property damage, sparking fires and swamping parts of Louisiana with a 15-foot storm surge.

But the Category 3 storm fell short of its deadly advance billing and proved far less devastating to the region than Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed much of New Orleans and vast sections of coastal Mississippi a month earlier, taking more than 1,000 lives.

Power was knocked out for an estimated 1.5 million homes and businesses along the coast yesterday, and many structures sustained damage here and in Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas, near where the storm made landfall about 2:30 a.m.

Floodwaters again inundated parts of New Orleans that had only recently dried out.

But there were no reported fatalities in the first hours after Rita's 120-mile-per-hour winds struck, and the nexus of strategic oil refineries in the region that supply a quarter of the nation's gasoline appeared to have survived without major damage.

A tornado spawned from the hurricane killed at least one person in Humphrey County in northern Mississippi.

"The damage is not as severe as we had expected it would be," R. David Paulison, the acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told reporters in Washington. "I'm here to tell you that the evacuations worked.

"Every mayor that we've talked to is crediting the evacuations for the fact that we have no reported deaths at this time."

More than 3 million Texas and Louisiana residents, haunted by the images of desperate Katrina victims trapped for days inside New Orleans, evacuated a 500-mile stretch of the coast late last week to escape the approach of Rita, which at one point during its journey across the Gulf of Mexico ranked as a Category 5 monster.

The exodus clogged roadways leading out of Houston for hundreds of miles and led to the deaths of 24 elderly nursing home patients who perished when their bus caught fire while stuck in gridlocked traffic outside Dallas.

Despite only limited damage in Houston and some other evacuated cities, however, authorities urged residents not to rush home immediately in a gigantic reverse migration because of power and flooding problems in many areas.

Most stores in Houston were closed, and bank machines had no cash.

Also, gasoline was in short supply.

"Houston hospitals, for example, are in need of nurses," President Bush said yesterday in Austin, Texas, while touring the emergency operations center in his home state.

"Nurses who are now trying to get back in are having problems getting on the highways.

"And so I would ask for those of you in the state ... who are in safe places now, not to hurry back to a city like Houston, and let these highways flow with necessary goods and services to the people in deep east Texas who have been affected," the president said.

Bush received his first briefings about the storm's effects at the headquarters of the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, headquarters for military handling of domestic crises, before heading to Austin.

Striking an intentional contrast with the federal government's delayed response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush said at Peterson Air Force Base yesterday that he had gotten "briefings that really do comfort me in knowing that our federal government is well organized and well prepared to deal with Rita."

In Lake Charles, the wind ripped roofs off buildings, toppled trees and power lines, and tore through trailer homes.

The lake rose up and swallowed the beachfront and pushed several floating casinos and barges up against Lakeshore Drive.

Power and water were out across the city, and officials told evacuated residents not to return for at least another two days.

City officials imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

"It sounded like a train was coming on you," said Lenard Cole, who had huddled in darkness inside his Lake Charles home as the wind and rain beat at his window. "I kept hearing the roaring and the whistling."

Cole said he had decided to stay in town because by the time he had finished his work shift, it seemed too late to evacuate.

Yesterday morning, after the worst of the storm had passed, he looked out his door and saw trees, branches and power lines scattered everywhere.

"I've never seen a storm as intense as this," he said. "Next time, I'm leaving."

Surge after sunrise

In Iberia Parish, farther east, rescuers in boats had plucked at least 150 people from flooded homes, said Mannie Mendoza, a captain with the Iberia Parish sheriff's office.

"We just got a lot of wind, hardly any rain with the hurricane," Mendoza said. "Everything was high and dry last night."

But all that changed as the storm surge made its way through the area after sunrise, Mendoza said.

New Orleans, meanwhile, dodged a second calamity as most of its neighborhoods remained dry.

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