Rita Batters U.S. Gulf Coast with Winds and Water

Hurricane Rita pummeled east Texas and the Louisiana coast Saturday, triggering floods and demolishing buildings, yet the dominant reaction was relief that the once-dreaded storm proved far less fierce and deadly than Katrina.


BEAUMONT, Texas (AP) -- Hurricane Rita pummeled east Texas and the Louisiana coast Saturday, triggering floods and demolishing buildings, yet the dominant reaction was relief that the once-dreaded storm proved far less fierce and deadly than Katrina. Authorities pleaded with the roughly 3 million evacuees not to hurry home too soon, fearing more chaos.

''Be patient, stay put,'' said Texas Gov. Rick Perry. ''If you are in a safe place with food, water, bedding, you are better remaining there for the time being.''

In any other hurricane season, Rita might have seemed devastating. It knocked out power for than 1 million customers, sparked fires across the hurricane zone and swamped Louisiana shoreline towns with a 15-foot (4.5-meter) storm surge that required daring boat and helicopter rescues of hundreds of people.

But the new storm came in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, with its 1,000-plus death toll, cataclysmic flooding of New Orleans and staggering destruction in Mississippi. By contrast, Rita spared Houston, New Orleans and other major cities a direct hit, and by mid-afternoon Saturday federal officials said they knew of no storm-related fatalities.

''The damage is not as serious as we had expected it to be,'' said R. David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. ''The evacuations worked.''

One person was killed in Mississippi by a tornado that spun off the remains of the hurricane. Damage to the vital concentration of oil refineries along the coast appeared relatively light, although industry officials said it was too early to assess whether there would be an impact on oil prices. Valero Energy Corp. said its 255,000-barrel-per-day Port Arthur refinery sustained significant damage to two cooling towers and a flare stack, would need at least two weeks for repairs.

Damage to the vital concentration of oil refineries along the coast appeared relatively light, although industry officials said it was too early to assess whether there would be an impact on oil prices. Valero Energy Corp. said its 255,000-barrel-per-day Port Arthur refinery sustained significant damage to two cooling towers and a flare stack, would need at least two weeks for repairs.

There were no initial reports of serious damage to the vital concentration of oil refineries along the coast, although industry officials cautioned it was still too early to assess the full impact. Damage to the nation's petroleum infrastructure from Katrina caused gas prices to rise nationwide.

Rita roared ashore before dawn Saturday close to the Texas-Louisiana border as a Category 3 hurricane with top winds of 120 mph (193 kph) and warnings of up to 25 inches (64 centimeters) of rain. By mid-afternoon, it was downgraded to a tropical storm with top sustained winds of 50 mph (80 kph) as it moved through east Texas toward Shreveport, Louisiana.

Before it weakened, Rita showed its strength across a broad region between Houston and New Orleans.

In Beaumont, trees of all sizes and power lines were down, street signs were shredded, and one brick wall of an office building had collapsed. Said Dr. Gaylon Gonzalez, a surgeon spent the night at Christus Hospital St. Elizabeth as Rita arrived: ''It sounded like a power washer hitting the windows.''

Some of the worst flooding occurred along the Louisiana coast, where transformers exploded, roofs were torn off and trees uprooted by winds topping 100 mph (160 kph). A canal lock on the intracoastal waterway in Vermilion Parish was overwhelmed, sending water pouring through and raising fears that the water would be carried farther inland.

The region was largely evacuated ahead of Rita, but some residents stayed behind and were rescued by helicopter.

''Most of the town was already under water from Katrina,'' said Coast Guard Lt. Roberto Torres, the pilot who airlifted the woman out. ''And what wasn't got flooded by Rita.''

This content continues onto the next page...