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

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.''

About 500 people were rescued from high waters south of New Orleans by helicopters. Another 15 to 25 people were reported stranded farther west along the shoreline of Vermilion Parish, but searches were postponed until Sunday because of high winds.

New Orleans, devastated by Katrina barely three weeks ago, endured a second straight day of new flooding that could seriously disrupt recovery plans. The Army Corps of Engineers said it would need at least two weeks to pump water from the most heavily flooded neighborhoods _ notably the impoverished Lower Ninth Ward _ after crews plug a series of levee breaches.

Some New Orleans residents who had evacuated to Houston because of Katrina were forced to move again as Rita approached.

''We're tired of being pushed from place to place,'' said Cora Washington, 59, as she and her family sat on cots in Texas A&M University's basketball arena in College Station. ''We want to try to go back to New Orleans and pick up the pieces.''

About 3 million people had fled a 500-mile (800-kilometer) stretch of the Texas-Louisiana coast ahead of Rita. The mass exodus produced gridlock and heartbreak; a bus of evacuees caught fire south of Dallas while stick in traffic, killing as many as 24 nursing home residents.

Houston Mayor Bill White expressed frustration with the gas shortages that had left thousands of motorists desperate for fuel on the freeways.

''It is just totally unacceptable that there was not adequate fuel supplies stashed around the state,'' he said Saturday.

As Rita's winds swept past, several fires broke out in and around Houston, including one in a two-story apartment building that damaged at least eight units. Several buildings were damaged or destroyed by fire in Galveston, and a blaze broke out before dawn at a shopping complex in Pasadena.

As the sun came up in downtown Beaumont, a port city of 114,000, the few people who stayed behind emerged to find some blown-out windows, damaged roofs, signs twisted and lying in the street and scattered downed trees. There was some standing water, but no significant flooding.

As the storm raged, the torches of oil refineries could be seen burning in the distance from downtown Beaumont. The facilities represent a quarter of U.S. oil refining capacity and business analysts said damage from Rita could send gas prices higher. Environmentalists warned of the risk of a toxic spill.

President George W. Bush, mindful of criticism the federal government was slow to respond to Hurricane Katrina three weeks ago, visited the Texas emergency operations center in Austin on Saturday.

Like other officials, Bush urged citizens not to prematurely assume the danger was over.

''Even though the storm has passed the coastline, the situation is still dangerous because of potential flooding,'' he said. ''People who are safe now ought to remain in safe conditions.''

At least 925,000 people in Texas and 300,000 in Louisiana were without electricity, according to local utility companies.

___

Associated Press writers Allen G. Breed in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Julia Silverman in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, and Tim Whitmire in east Texas contributed to this report.

Related:

Loading