Hurricane Rita caused significant flooding and damage to smaller coastal communities in Texas and southwest Louisiana Saturday morning, and while it was not entirely depleted late Saturday, Rita left the population and energy centers of Houston and Galveston in better shape than expected.
The main threat became continued rain from the slow moving storm as it angled north and eastward toward Arkansas as well as surging, churning waves along the Gulf Coast.
No deaths have been reported since the storm struck, although 24 elderly residents of a Houston nursing home perished Friday when the bus that was being used to evacuate them exploded on Interstate 45.
Hurricane Rita stormed into Texas and Louisiana at 3:30 a.m. EDT, Saturday, with relentless 120 mph winds, sheets of rain and the battering waves worthy of a menacing Category 3 hurricane.
After landfall, it subsided significantly, shrinking to Category 1 and by 2:00 p.m. EDT, to a tropical storm with 65 mph winds.
Towns hit most heavily, according to first accounts, included Beaumont, Lumberton and Port Arthur in Texas and the area around Lake Charles and Abbeville in Louisiana, which President Bush singled out in a morning appearance from a government command center in Colorado Springs as "hard hit."
Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach said his town had suffered considerable flooding and wind damage but so far "not the catastrophic" destruction comparable to Biloxi, Miss., during Katrina.
Houston Mayor Bill White and Texas Gov. Rick Perry asked millions of evacuees not to return just yet, saying they hoped to arrange a staggered return and avoid the horrendous 100-mile backups of the exodus out. White pleaded with Houstonians to stay away through the weekend in order to keep the roads clear for relief and emergency vehicles headed for areas in need. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco also urged residents of the Lake Charles area not to return for at least two days, and even then to listen for official reports that it is safe.
Interstate 45 coming south from Dallas was nevertheless crowded with motorists returning to Houston, Washington Post correspondent Blaine Harden reported.
Authorities said they had not heard of significant damage to the dozens of refineries in the region. They were preparing for more thorough inspections.
In New Orleans, where flooding continued Saturday after water gushed over the top of some of the city's levees, a steady rain fell through Friday night, subsiding in the morning. It was still too windy to get helicopters up to begin dropping sand bags in temporary levees, however.
"Overall, it looks like New Orleans has lucked out in that they didn't get the heaviest rainfall," said National Weather Service meteorologist Phil Grigsby.
In contrast to its response during Hurricane Katrina, the federal government, from the president on down through two generals and the acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, made sure to be a constant visible presence.
Bush appeared early in the day on television from the U.S. Northern Command post in Colorado Springs, where he urged evacuees not to return to their homes too soon. He then flew to Austin to meet with emergency response officials.
R. David Paulison, the acting director of FEMA, also held a news conference toward the end of the day to say the storm had not been as destructive as feared.
Still, there was plenty of woe to be found along the Gulf Coast Saturday morning in its season of epic woe.
There were reports of significant flooding in downtown Lake Charles, the largest city in southwest Louisiana and a major center of riverboat gambling. Five-ton trucks and other high-water vehicles were streaming south from staging areas in Lafayette, heading to Cameron Parish, the large, mostly rural parish that took the brunt of the storm.
"We had barges hit bridges on Interstate 10 in Lake Charles," said Warden Nelson, of the Louisiana Department of Economic Development. "We have a lot of roads under water. . . . It's all under water. The water's coming up."
"Between Slidell and Lake Charles, we have 50-plus roads closed because of downed trees or water," said Trooper Johnny Brown, a spokesman for the Louisiana State Police Department.
Early rescue efforts were being hampered by strong wind gusts and sheets of rain. In Abbeville, dozens of citizens lined up near the Cajun country town's courthouse in pickup trucks pulling flatboats. The outpouring of citizen rescuers was reminiscent of the early days of Hurricane Katrina when hundreds of Cajuns drove from the Lafayette area to New Orleans, spontaneously launching their boats and conducting rescue missions before state, local or federal authorities began formal rescue operations.
There were also reports of major damage to the Lake Charles airport, the collapse of an overpass on Interstate 110 near Lake Charles, a loose barge in the Houston Ship Channel and power lines down across the entire region. A spectacular fire engulfed three buildings in Galveston's historic downtown, and another building collapsed in the same area as Rita raked the island city.
"We have trees across roads. In downtown, we have observed several businesses totally destroyed," Sulphur, La., police department spokesman George Mullican told the Associated Press. "It's too dangerous to send anyone out right now because of the wind."
"All of Louisiana has been dealt a harsh blow. . . . Rita has compounded Louisiana's pain," Gov. Blanco said at a news briefing this afternoon.
Blanco also announced the formation of the "Family Recovery Corps" to help Louisiana residents hit hard by both hurricanes to get needed assistance to rebuild their lives.
Rita did not wait for the National Hurricane Center to announce landfall to get started.
In Beaumont, power lines started falling to the ground at just after the dinner hour Friday and continued sputtering with flames in the darkness of night. The only communication was over the Beaumont radio stations, which combined their staffs and linked their transmitters to stay on the air, while television and landline telephone communication collapsed.
Throughout the night, the radio stations fielded calls from those who had stayed. Many reported their situation in wavering, scared voices, nervously reconsidering the folly of their refusal to evacuate with the thousands of other residents.
"I have no bedroom, no bathroom. We lost the roof, the cars. The roof fell in," said one caller from Orangefield, just east of Beaumont. "We have no porch, no bathroom. The house is wide open. But we're alive."
"We're all okay right now. We're in the trailer. But it's getting scary," reported a woman from Newton.
"I'm here in the hallway with my sleeping bag, candles and my radio. Is it true the hallway is the best place to be?" asked another caller.
Ominously, the police department in Silsbee, north of Beaumont, called the radio station to appeal for help in Vidor, 10 miles to the east of Beaumont. Emergency calls had been routed to Silsbee, and the dispatcher said they had gotten calls for help from an apartment building in Vidor, with people trapped.
"Is there anyone who can get over there?" the dispatcher asked on the air in desperation. With winds fierce, that appeared unlikely.
Two other callers reported that a cruise boat in the Ship Channel had broken in half. It was unknown if any crew had remained on the boat.
The wind roared throughout the night in fluid rage, a sound like that of a jet engine. It was interrupted periodically by the thumps of solid on solid, a worrisome sound in the dark night. Each caller reported trees within their eyesight that had been uprooted or snapped.
The dangerous winds were expected to last through mid-day Saturday in Beaumont. But officials feared the storm could dump 15 inches of rain or more on the area, causing flooding.
Port Arthur, a low-lying town nearest the Gulf, had so far escaped the most worrisome threat, water breaking through the 14-foot levee. At 3:30 a.m., as the eye of the storm passed over Port Arthur, callers said there was no water, though they were wary that the reversed direction of the wind would bring flooding.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said the eye of the storm hit land in extreme southwestern Louisiana just east of Sabine Pass, Tex. It moved northward at about 12 mph, losing energy for want of warm water. By 2:00 p.m. EDT, Tropical Storm Rita was located between Shreveport, La., and Lufkin, Tex.
The Hurricane Center said Rita's "slow movement is expected to generate very heavy rains over the next few days with rainfall totals of 10 to 15 inches" possible across eastern Texas, eastern Louisiana, southern Arkansas and metropolitan New Orleans.
New Orleans was under water again Saturday as Hurricane Rita's storm surge cascaded over the city's patched levees, just days after already-devastated neighborhoods had been pumped dry.
Surging waters from Rita poured eight feet of water into a New Orleans neighborhood Saturday and engineers tried to patch weakened levees that had proven vulnerable for the second time in a month.
Officials said they knew of no deaths from the renewed flooding and had not encountered anybody trapped on rooftops in several passes through the flooded neighborhoods, the Associated Press said.
"The good thing is there was no human life in jeopardy," said New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Eddie Compass. "Everybody heeded the warning and evacuated."
Friday's storm surge was both stronger and earlier than expected, apparently coming through waterways southeast of the city, said Col. Richard Wagenaar, the Army Corps of Engineers' district chief in New Orleans. Water poured over piles of gravel and sandbags in the damaged Industrial Canal levee despite efforts to build it up.
"We believed the eight-foot elevation was sufficient" to protect the Ninth Ward, Wagenaar said.
Farther north, water six to eight inches deep was streaming into homes south of Lake Pontchartrain, spouting from beneath two gravel-and-rock patches on the London Avenue Canal levee, wire services said. Corps engineers said they expected the leaks.
The problems would set back levee repairs at least three weeks, Wagenaar said, but June is still the target for getting them back to pre-Katrina strength.
Staff writers Doug Struck reported from Beaumont, Tex. Ceci Connolly from New Orleans; Sylvia Moreno, Amy Joyce reported from Houston and Jim VandeHei reported from Austin, while Blaine Harden reported from I-45. Fred Barbash reported from Washington.