Residents of Houston and a New Orleans neighborhood streamed back to their homes today, battling traffic jams and fuel shortages as cleanup crews worked to get rid of debris left by Hurricane Rita and rescue teams searched for stranded people in flooded rural areas.
The death toll from Rita climbed to seven today after the bodies of five people -- a man, a woman and three children -- were found in an apartment in Beaumont, Tex., the Associated Press reported. They apparently had been overcome by carbon monoxide from a generator they were using after the hurricane knocked out power.
In hard-hit Vermilion Parish in Louisiana's Cajun country, rescue teams today were wrapping up their searches for people stranded by flooding after having already rescued about 1,000 residents since the storm hit. So far, no storm-related deaths have been reported in the parish of 56,000 people, said Col. Kirk Frith of the Vermilion sheriff's department.
Texas authorities warned motorists to expect heavy delays and shortages of gasoline as they headed back into Houston following last week's evacuation from the predicted path of Rita. The Texas Department of Transportation reported bumper-to-bumper traffic this morning on most highways into Houston from north and central Texas. Parts of the state's upper Gulf Coast were closed to returnees, and authorities were turning motorists away.
The Texas state government has announced a phased return for the estimated 2.5 million Texans who fled their homes in advance of Hurricane Rita. Residents of the northwestern quadrant of Houston were allowed to return starting yesterday, but many people headed home regardless of the plan, which was aimed at avoiding the massive traffic backups and gridlock that marked the initial evacuation.
"Our people are tired of the state's plan!" complained County Judge John Willy, the top elected official in Brazoria County near the Gulf Coast south of Houston. "They have a plan, too, and it's real simple," he said in a statement posted on the county's Web site. "They plan to come home when they want."
In New Orleans, Mayor C. Ray Nagin invited residents of the Algiers neighborhood to come back to their homes as part of his program to gradually repopulate and rebuild the flood-ravaged city. New Orleans was largely evacuated because of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina when it struck late last month.
"With Hurricane Rita behind us, the task at hand is to bring New Orleans back," Nagin said, AP reported. "We want people to return and help us rebuild the city. However, we want everyone to assess the risks and make an informed decision about reentry plans."
Nagin had encouraged people to come back to the Algiers neighborhood last week before the approach of Rita, and objections from federal officials prompted him to suspend his plan and order the evacuation of the city for a second time. Algiers largely escaped the flooding that devastated much of New Orleans after Katrina and that returned to the Ninth Ward when Rita overwhelmed levees in a few places.
The neighborhood, home to about 57,000 people, has electricity, water and sewer service. But Nagin warned there would be limited police and firefighting capabilities and no critical care available in hospitals. He imposed a 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. curfew and cautioned that only able-bodied people should return to Algiers.
Although Katrina caused more than 1,000 deaths, so far only seven deaths have been blamed on Rita, which made landfall early Saturday with 120-mph winds on the coast near the Texas-Louisiana border. Before today's discovery of the five bodies in Beaumont, one person was reported killed in Mississippi when a tornado spawned by the hurricane overturned a mobile home, and a man in East Texas was killed by a falling tree.
A tornado stemming from Rita's remnants tore through the campus of Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss., on Sunday, toppling trees, knocking down power lines and injuring four people. Classes at the university were closed today.
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency reported that more than 100 homes were damaged by tornados, at least 14 of which touched down Sunday in the state.
In Vermilion Parish, which bills itself as "the most Cajun place on earth," Col. Firth of the sheriff's department said today, "We're finally getting to the last stage of our rescue operations." In a telephone interview, he said floodwaters were receding quickly and teams were now checking out about 100 emergency calls to make sure no one still needed to be rescued.
He said that in addition to the sheriff's department, participants in the rescue effort included the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Guard and the Army's 82nd Airborne Division.
A damage assessment is underway in the parish, and roads are being reopened as the waters recede and debris is cleared, Firth said.