After Storm, States Assess The Damage

In Texas and Louisiana, few deaths but wide destruction of property

Hurricane Rita

September 26, 2005|By Howard Witt | Howard Witt,Chicago Tribune

NEW ORLEANS -- Houston leaped back to business yesterday and New Orleans began clearing its sodden streets all over again as dozens of smaller cities and towns lining the Gulf Coast in between began assessing the damage wrought by Hurricane Rita.

The overall verdict, despite smashed fishing towns, downed trees, snapped electric lines and a handful of coastal residents stranded by flooding: Things could have been much worse.

"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 of the hardest-hit eastern portions of his state yesterday.

Officials said an estimated 1 million residents in Texas and Louisiana remained without power 36 hours after Rita made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane early Saturday near Sabine Pass, Texas. Federal search teams reported more than 400 rescues of people trapped by the storm, with local authorities working from boats up and down the Texas and Louisiana coasts tallying hundreds more.

But only two deaths were directly attributed to the storm, which dissipated quickly rather than stalling and dumping 2 feet of rain as forecasters had predicted.

Across the region, many of the more than 3 million residents who were estimated to have evacuated in advance of Rita's approach began their long pilgrimages back home, despite the admonitions of some authorities not to rush back before full services could be restored.

John Willy, the top elected official in Brazoria County southwest of Houston, reflected the impatience of his constituents and 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," Willy 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."

President Bush, concluding three days spent touring emergency command centers in Colorado, Texas and Louisiana, said he would ask Congress to consider new ways to involve the military more quickly in responding to major natural disasters.

"Part of the reason I've come down here ... was to better understand how the federal government can ... mitigate natural disasters," Bush said at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio. "It's precisely the kind of information that I'll take back to Washington to help all of us understand how we can do a better job in coordinating federal, state and local response."

During Bush's visit, Maj. Gen. John White recounted an episode during the chaotic rescue operation in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck four weeks ago, when five helicopters showed up at the same time to rescue one person.

"That's the sort of simplistic thing we'd like to avoid," White said to Bush.

Officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, widely blamed for their sluggish and disorganized response to Katrina, were determined not to repeat their mistakes with Rita. Surveying the storm's aftermath yesterday, they pronounced themselves satisfied.

"The response, I'm here to tell you, is in full swing," R. David Paulison, the acting director of FEMA, told reporters in Washington.

"We know the storm was not as devastating as some people predicted it was going to be," Paulison added. "But there are a lot of people out there who have lost everything. They've lost their homes, they've lost all their valuables and all their possessions. And we want to make sure that we're going to do our best to get them back on their feet."

Paulison defended the evacuations of Houston, Galveston, Texas, and coastal Louisiana cities ahead of Rita's arrival, despite the gridlock that ensued on major highways and the shortages of gas and other supplies for motorists who ended up stranded. Twenty-three elderly evacuees from a nursing home died in a traffic jam outside Dallas early Friday when their bus caught fire and exploded.

"I'm absolutely convinced that the evacuations were the right thing do," Paulison said. Surveys of critical oil refineries in the hurricane's path along the Texas and Louisiana coasts confirmed that damage was minimal, sending oil futures falling yesterday. But analysts predicted that gasoline prices could rise in coming weeks until refineries shut down in advance of Rita - and others damaged by Katrina - come back on line.

Elsewhere in Louisiana, however, the picture was not as bright.

Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, touring the damage by helicopter, flew over fishing villages in Cameron Parish in the southwestern corner of the state that were destroyed by Saturday's storm.

"In Cameron, there's really hardly anything left," Blanco said. "Everything is just obliterated."

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

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