Rafael Cuellar Jr., the Kenedy County sheriff, emerged from his office this afternoon with a hurricane damage report for Judge J. J. Garcia, the top official in this sprawling South Texas coastal county.

"Well, judge, Mifflin's gone," Cuellar said, referring to one of Kenedy's few developed areas, seven miles south of Sarita, the county seat.

"Mifflin?" the judge said, cringing. He turned to face Cuellar in the main hallway of the county courthouse here. "You say Mifflin's gone?"

"Both barns, flattened out," said Cuellar, nodding. "The slaughterhouse, too."

Such was the minimal damage wrought by Hurricane Bret, the massive storm that turned inland from the Gulf of Mexico late Sunday and threaded a needle--largely sparing the populous Rio Grande Valley to the south and Corpus Christi to the north. It plowed across the vast emptiness between the two--mostly Kenedy County, a cattle ranching area about the size of Rhode Island, with fewer than 600 permanent residents.

"Of all the places on the Gulf or even the Atlantic coast, it picked the best place to make landfall," said National Weather Service meteorologist Don Ocker, after Bret had been downgraded this morning to a tropical storm. By 4 p.m. CDT today, with its winds diminished to 40 mph--barely tropical-storm strength--Bret had pushed 100 miles inland and was centered northeast of the Texas border city of Laredo.

The weather service expected the winds to drop below 37 mph tonight, meaning Bret would lose its tropical storm classification.

Although the storm continued to dump heavy rains, many of the 10,000 or so Texans who fled inland over the weekend to escape the 140 mph winds of Hurricane Bret were returning to their homes near Corpus Christi to the north and Brownsville to the south.

President Clinton, at the request of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, issued a disaster declaration for seven coastal counties--Aransas, San Patricio, Kenedy, Cameron, Willacy, Nueces and Kleberg--making them eligible for expedited federal relief.

Although heavy rain continued to fall throughout Texas's southern Gulf Coast tonight,Bret caused far less damage than had been feared in Corpus Christi, about 50 miles north of where the storm's eye came ashore, and in the Rio Grande Valley, about 60 miles south of where Bret's center made landfall.

Four people died in Laredo tonight in a traffic accident that officials said probably was storm-related. Police said a tractor trailer jackknifed on a rainswept road and hit a pickup coming in the opposite direction. The truck driver and two women and a man in the pickup were killed.

The storm, which came ashore in Kenedy County just before 7 p.m. CDT Sunday, was downgraded to a tropical storm at 4 a.m. today after its winds dropped below 74 mph. On Saturday, when Bret was a Category 4 hurricane lumbering toward the Gulf Coast with winds exceeding 135 mph, officials across the region had braced for a catastrophe.

"We didn't dodge a bullet; we dodged a missile," said Judge Gilberto Hinojosa, the top official in Cameron County in the Rio Grande Valley. Cameron includes South Padre Island, two miles offshore, one of Texas's most popular tourist destinations.

"We didn't sustain much damage," Hinojosa said of the island and the mainland, which includes Brownsville. "A little bit of scattered flooding, some buildings that were damaged, that's all. Nothing you'd consider extensive."

In Corpus Christi officials were similarly relieved.

"We were very fortunate that it came in below us in Kenedy County," said Yvonne Haag, spokeswoman for the city's emergency management center. Besides some flooding, scattered damage to buildings and power outages in some neighborhoods, "we did very, very well," Haag said.

Nueces County, which includes Corpus Christi, has a population of more than 300,000. Willacy and Cameron counties in the Rio Grande Valley have a total of about 340,000 residents. Between the two areas are the open spaces of Kenedy and Kleberg counties.

"No injuries, no real bad damage," Sheriff Cuellar said, noting that Kenedy's 1,200 square miles offer few buildings for a storm to damage. Much of the county is flat grazing land belonging to three cattle ranches that, combined, occupy nearly 1.5 million acres in several counties. Kenedy's residents, most of whom live in Sarita, are outnumbered more than 10 to 1 by cattle.

Sarita was littered today with downed branches and shingles blown from roofs. Several homes were flooded and three of the sheriff's patrol cars were parked in the courthouse lot with windows smashed by flying tree limbs.

Ranchers, though, were happy for the water, which will thicken the grasslands for the cattle.

"All in all, it hasn't been nearly as bad as it could have been," said Jack Hunt, president of the 820,000-acre King Ranch--which covers parts of several counties, including about a quarter of Kenedy. "We had some small buildings damaged, but no one was hurt, which is the important thing."

Hunt said "it might take quite some time" for cowboys on horseback and in vehicles and helicopters to determine how many, if any, of the ranch's 55,000 head of cattle were hurt in the storm. The King ranch is Texas's biggest. Two other ranches in the storm's path, the Armstrong and Kenedy ranches, also cover tens of thousands of acres each between Corpus Christi and the Rio Grande Valley.

"Except for the little bit of wind damage we had, I don't see anything negative about it," Kenedy Ranch property manager Joe Keepers said of the storm after he had surveyed some of the ranch's 440,000 acres today.

"We had some rain in July but we were just starting to dry out," he said. "So I'd call it a beneficial storm mostly."