One million people remained without power Sunday after Hurricane Rita savaged coastal Louisiana and Texas, inflicting heavy damage and flooding on a few isolated coastal towns, but Houston began re-populating without incident, the price of oil dropped and officials announced that New Orleans could again be dry in a week.
Search and rescue teams flew rescue missions into Texas and Louisiana to continue searching for stranded residents as storm-weary residents began clearing away debris left by the powerful storm and utility crews worked to restore power.
Hurricane Rita, which slammed into the Gulf Coast as a Category 3 hurricane early Saturday, moved quickly north as a tropical depression Sunday after causing nowhere near the kind of devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina nearly a month earlier.
The storm bypassed the heavily-populated areas of Galveston and Houston, where it initially appeared headed. Thousands of evacuees from Houston began streaming home Sunday under a plan for a phased return starting with the northwest quadrant of the city.
Many other evacuees appeared to be ignoring official admonitions to stay put, but there was no immediate repeat of the grueling gridlock that marred the evacuation. Nearly 3 million people are estimated to have fled the coastline of south Texas and southwest Louisiana in a historic two-day mass exodus ahead of the storm. Houston was slowly coming back to life, with a few supermarkets, drug stores and restaurants opening their doors, according to the Associated Press.
Petrochemical plants that supply a quarter of the country's gas suffered only minimally, with just one plant requiring extensive repairs in the Port Arthur area of Texas. Crude oil futures fell sharply in unusual Sunday trading as it became evident that oil rig and refinery damage was less than feared.
And authorities in New Orleans said the city, parts of which re-flooded in Rita, could be pumped dry again within a week after levee damage is repaired, far sooner than expected. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin pushed ahead with his plan to reopen parts of the flood-ravaged city this week.
"All indications are all operations are getting back to normal," said Ted Monette, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans, according to the Associated Press.
President Bush was briefed on the federal hurricane response Sunday morning in San Antonio, Tex., by military officials who told him the country needs a national plan to coordinate search and rescue efforts after major disasters.
Maj. Gen. John White, a member of the military's Joint Task Force Rita, described the search and rescue effort in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina as a "train wreck" marked by confusion and duplication of effort. "With a national plan, we'll have a quick jump-start and an opportunity to save more people," he said at the briefing at Randolph Air Force Base.
Bush said he had come to learn how the government could "do a better job in coordinating the federal, state and local response." He said he wondered whether there were circumstances, aside from a terrorist attack, "in which the Defense Department becomes the lead agency," and he suggested that Congress consider the matter.
Search and rescue teams dispatched by the Federal Emergency Management Agency used boats and helicopters to look for people trapped by floodwaters in Louisiana's Cajun country in the southwestern part of the state, where Rita caused flooding up to nine feet deep. Teams were also deployed to parts of the upper Texas coast that were swamped by Rita's storm surge and torrential rains.
In southern Louisiana, there were reports that hundreds of people may be stranded and in need of rescue in parts of Vermilion Parish near the Gulf Coast.
Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, whose state was slammed by both Katrina and Rita, said she was asking the federal government for $31.7 billion to help rebuild the state's infrastructure.
"A great deal of our criticial infrastructure is damaged," she said at a news conference following a meeting with President Bush in Baton Rouge. She called rebuilding Louisiana "a massive undertaking."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) urged people who obeyed evacuation orders for cities and towns in the hurricane's path to refrain from returning to their homes until local authorities gave them the all clear. The state's Department of Transportation has developed a plan to stagger the return of more than 2.5 million evacuees over at least three days.
Before taking a helicopter tour of the Beaumont area, Perry told morning news programs that Texas suffered an estimated $8 billion worth of damage from Hurricane Rita but that the oil and gas industry was largely spared. He said on CNN that Rita delivered "a glancing blow at worst" and that he hoped refineries that were shut down as the hurricane approached would be "back in production very soon."
"Even though the people right here in Beaumont and Port Arthur and this part of Orange County really got whacked, the rest of the state missed a bullet," Perry said, according to the Associated Press.
Only one Rita-related death has been reported so far -- that of a Mississippi resident whose mobile home was hit by a tornado spawned by the hurricane.
As the remnants of Rita moved into Arkansas and Mississippi and dumped heavy rains on Memphis, television footage shot from helicopters showed widespread flooding in Port Arthur, Tex., and Lake Charles, La.
Steve McCraw, director of the Texas homeland security department, said he hoped people could return to their homes within a week. He urged people to "be patient" and allow time or electricity to be restored and fresh supplies of food and fuel to reach the area.
"Thankfully, [Rita] didn't hit us as hard as we expected," McCraw told the Fox News Channel Sunday morning. He said there were no reports of deaths or serious injuries in Texas as a direct result of the hurricane. On Friday, 24 nursing home residents died during the evacuation when their bus caught fire south of Dallas.
Rita slammed into the Texas-Louisiana corridor early Saturday, leaving toppled trees, snapped utility poles and rising floodwaters in its wake as lashing rain soaked low-lying areas. Satellite dishes, ripped from their moorings, skittered along rain-slicked highways like errant hockey pucks.
Survival in the region of bayous, piney woods, petrochemical plants and urban sprawl owed itself both to luck -- Rita came ashore in a relatively unpopulated area -- and to the fearsome example set by Hurricane Katrina, the storm that killed more than 1,000 people when it ripped through New Orleans and Mississippi's Gulf Coast less than four weeks ago.
Fears of renewed tragedy rose in New Orleans when hastily repaired levees breached during Katrina fell apart again during Rita's first surge Friday, once again flooding parts of New Orleans's Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish.
But no further damage was reported, and the Army Corps of Engineers worked to plug the new gaps Saturday, rolling large boulders into the breaches on either side of the Industrial Canal, then sending Chinook helicopters to drop 3,000-pound bags of sand into the stricken dikes.
Still, engineers kept a careful eye on Lake Pontchartrain, which had risen four feet above the water levels inside the city's flood walls and levees. Ben Morris, the mayor of Slidell, a small community on the lake's eastern end, warned on local television that the lake could spill into low-lying neighborhoods.
Branigin and Deane reported from Washington. Staff writers Ceci Connolly in New Orleans, Blaine Harden in Jasper, Tex., Steve Hendrix in Austin, Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Ann Scott Tyson, aboard the USS Iwo Jima, contributed to this report.