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.

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.