Rita rescuers witness devastating damage

Hurricane Rita’s path of devastation along the Texas-Louisiana coast in the United States became shockingly clear on Monday, as rescuers pulled stranded bayou residents out on skiffs and army helicopters searched for thousands of cattle feared drowned.

Crews struggled to clean up the tangle of smashed homes and downed trees. The hurricane slammed low-lying fishing villages, shrimping ports and ranches with water up to 2,7m deep. Seawater pushed as far as 32km inland, drowning hectares of rice, sugar-cane fields and pasture.

In coastal Terrebonne Parish, the count of severely damaged or destroyed homes stood at nearly 9 900.
An estimated 80% of the buildings in the town of Cameron, population 1 900, were levelled. Farther inland, half of Creole, population 1 500, was left in splinters.

“I would use the word destroyed,” Army Lieutenant General Russel Honore said of Cameron. “Cameron and Creole have been destroyed except for the courthouse, which was built on stilts on higher ground. Most of the houses and public buildings no longer exist or are even in the same location that they were.”

The death toll from the second devastating hurricane in a month rose to 10 with the discovery in a Beaumont, Texas, apartment of five people—a man, a woman and three children—who apparently were killed by carbon monoxide from a generator they were running indoors after Rita knocked out the electricity. In Texas, a couple was confirmed killed by an uprooted tree that fell on their home, and another man was electrocuted as he tried to connect a generator.

Houses in the marshland between Cameron and Creole were reduced to piles of bricks, or bare concrete slabs with steps leading to nowhere. Walls of an elementary-school gymnasium had been washed or blown away, leaving basketball hoops hanging from the ceiling. A single-storey white home was propped up against a line of trees, left there by flood waters that ripped it from its foundation. A bank was open to the air, its vault still intact.

“We used to call this sportsman’s paradise,” said Honore, a Louisiana native. “But sometimes Mother Nature will come back and remind us that it has power over the land. That’s what this storm did.”

Bayou residents return

While residents of the Texas refinery towns of Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange were blocked from returning to their homes because of the danger of debris-choked streets and downed power lines, authorities in Louisiana were unable to keep bayou residents from venturing in on their own by boat to see if Rita wrecked their homes.

“Knowing these people, most of them are hunters, trappers, farmers. They’re not going to wait on Fema [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] or anyone else,” said Robert LeBlanc, director of emergency preparedness in Vermilion Parish. “They’re going to do what they need to do. They’re used to primitive conditions.”

And many were finding that conditions were, in fact, primitive.

Across south-western Louisiana, many people found they had no home to go back to.

In the refinery town of Lake Charles, national guardsmen patrolled the place and handed out bottled water, ice and food to hundreds of people left without power. Scores of cars wrapped around the parking lot of the city civic centre.

Dorothy Anderson said she did not have time to get groceries before the storm because she was at a funeral out of town.

“We got back and everything was closed,” she said.

Rescue operations

Louisiana’s department of wildlife and fisheries said its teams used small boats to rescue about 200 people trapped in their homes.

In Chauvin, a steady stream of people were brought by small boats from flooded sections of Terrebonne Parish. Some cried as they hauled plastic bags filled with their possessions.

“This is the worst thing I’ve ever been through,” said Danny Hunter (56). “I called Fema this morning, and they said they couldn’t help us because this hasn’t been declared a disaster area.”

“Texas is a disaster area!” Jenny Reading shouted. “I guess the president made sure of that, and everyone just forgot about us.”

A Fema spokesperson said that Terrebonne Parish was declared a disaster area for Katrina but not for Rita. Officials were checking to see if the residents were eligible for Rita help.

With the flood waters going down, officials turned their attention from rescuing people to saving property, including cattle—many of which were seen swimming in the brown flood waters.

The army used Blackhawk helicopters equipped with satellite positioning systems to search for cattle amid fears as many as 4 000 may have been killed in Cameron Parish alone, where ranchers on horseback struggled to herd the animals into corrals attached to pick-up trucks.

“Take all the coastal parishes, they all had cattle,” said Bob Felknor, spokesperson for the Louisiana Cattlemen’s Association. “It could be more than 30 000 in trouble.”

Texas put the damage from Rita at a preliminary $8-billion.

Oil refineries shut

At least 16 Texas oil refineries remained shut down after Rita, which came ashore early on Saturday at Sabine Pass, about 50km from Beaumont. A refinery in Port Arthur and one in Beaumont were without power, and a second Port Arthur refinery was damaged and could remain out of service for two to four weeks.

“We didn’t dodge a bullet with Rita; we took a couple bullets in the legs with Katrina and Rita,” said Tom Kloza, an analyst with the Oil Price Information Service of Wall, New Jersey. “It’s still a significant loss, and it’s going to create some supply problems through at least mid-October.”

Early estimates were that Hurricane Rita will cost US refiners about 800 000 barrels a day in capacity, on top of a drop about 900 000 barrels a day because of Katrina. Kloza said the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline could again top $3.

In Washington, President George Bush said the government is prepared to again tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to ease any new pain at the pump, and he urged motorists to cut out any unnecessary travel.

“We can all pitch in by being better conservers of energy,” Bush said.

Houston recovers

Gasoline and traffic were both flowing smoothly as metropolitan Houston continued its second day of a voluntary, staggered re-entry plan, an attempt to avoid the epic gridlock that accompanied the exodus of nearly three million people last week.

“It’s not stop-and-go traffic. Everythi ng is flowing,” said Mike Cox, a spokesperson for the Texas transportation department. He said crews were also making progress in clearing trees and downed power lines from major roads.

In Galveston county, utility crews had restored power to 80% of the city when a small aircraft struck two electrical lines on Monday, turning out the lights again.

“We thought we would have all the power restored when [residents] got back,” city spokesperson Mary Jo Naschke said.

In New Orleans, mayor Ray Nagin picked up where he left off before Rita with his plan to reopen the Big Easy, inviting people in the largely unscathed Algiers neighbourhood to come back and “help us rebuild the city”.

About 300 000 customers were without power in Louisiana, and 450 000 in Texas on Monday, a number cut in half since the storm hit. A spokesperson for Entergy, a major utility in both states, said it could be more than a month before some customers have power restored, and rolling blackouts are possible if residents in unaffected areas do not cut back on usage.

Among the deaths attributed to Rita was a person killed in Mississippi when a tornado spawned by the hurricane overturned a mobile home, and a Texas man struck by a falling tree. Two dozen evacuees were killed before the storm in a bus fire near Dallas.—Sapa-AP

Associated Press writers David Koenig, Julia Silverman, April Castro and Lara Jakes Jordan contributed to this report

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