Hurricane Rita, packing 120-mph winds and torrential rains, bulldozed up the Texas-Louisiana corridor Saturday, leaving scarred countryside and mugged towns in its wake, but apparently causing little loss of life.
Rita's footsteps left behind upturned trees, snapped utility poles and rising floodwaters as skirts of rain soaked low-lying areas. Satellite dishes, ripped from their moorings, skittered along rain-slicked highways like errant hockey pucks.
Survival in this vast 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.
Chastened by Katrina memories, more than 3 million Texans and large numbers of Louisianans evacuated Houston, Galveston and dozens of smaller settlements in one of the biggest -- and fastest -- internal migrations in U.S. history, leaving Rita to howl its way through ghost towns.
"Everybody left," said Jason Stagg, 34, working with a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries boat crew in this battered Gulf Coast port town and tourist destination, near which the eye of the hurricane passed just before dawn. "We haven't had to rescue anyone."
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.
By late Saturday the virtue of the mass exodus in Texas was fast becoming a vice. People wanted to come home, and they were ignoring Gov. Rick Perry's admonition "that if you're in a safe place, with food, water and bedding, you're better off staying in place. Now is no time for Texans to let their guard down."
Instead, motorists flooded the highways, destined for largely undamaged Houston and Galveston. Steve McCraw, Texas director of homeland security, pleaded with evacuees to get off the roads so state police could help Rita victims at the Louisiana border and beyond, instead of remaining behind to unsnarl traffic jams.
"We know that no one has lost his life, which is good news -- the objective today is immediate response," said Jack Colley, Texas coordinator for the Governor's Division of Emergency Management. "That's medical assessment, food, water, ice and communications -- making contact with local officials and reestablishing continuity of government."
Late Saturday, Rita was downgraded to a tropical depression and was 40 miles north of Shreveport, La.
"The risk now is from heavy rains," said meteorologist Chris Landsea in a telephone interview earlier from the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "We may see up to 25 inches in east Texas, western Louisiana and southern Arkansas."
If the storm stalls, Colley said, the affected area would include 64,000 square miles of east Texas in 80 counties with 11.3 million people. Texas may soon be dealing with "an entirely different disaster," he said, " a heavy flood." The National Weather Service warned of possible "catastrophic river flooding," as runoff from "torrential rains" fans out over the coastal plain. Isolated tornadoes also were possible.
But initial reports from relief officials and service providers Saturday were mostly positive. Telephone networks in Texas and Louisiana appeared to have held up relatively well. SBC Communications Inc., the largest provider in Texas, had only one station -- in Sabine Pass -- out of operation, while Sprint Nextel Corp. reported about 4 percent of its 360,000 local telephone lines affected.
Dan Packer, chief executive of the power company Entergy New Orleans, reported that 800,000 of its customers, primarily in Texas and Louisiana, were without electricity, but about 200,000 of these first lost electricity during Katrina. In all, about 1.1 million customers in the region were without power.
Also dodging a major casualty was the region's oil industry. At least four refineries reported some damage, but estimates of insured losses, which had been as high as $18 billion Friday, were reduced -- some as low as $2.5 billion. Energy analysts said the impact on gasoline prices over the coming weeks should be minimal.
"Twenty-five percent of the refining capacity of all of America is sitting in the one area that was targeted by this hurricane," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) said. "We could have had a catastrophe that would have affected the whole country. That didn't happen."
President Bush, trying to overcome criticism of the federal government response to Katrina, rode out Rita at Peterson Air Force Base, headquarters of the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, then flew to Austin and San Antonio.
"The federal government knows we have a responsibility to support you in the mission of saving lives first and foremost, and then helping rebuild," he said in San Antonio. Earlier in Colorado Springs, he told reporters that "it comforts me knowing our federal government is well-organized and well-prepared to deal with Rita."
By Saturday afternoon, Department of Homeland Security officials reported that emergency teams poised overnight in Houston were reaching flood-damaged areas on Texas's southeast edge and had succeeded in rescuing some people.
Department spokesman David Passey said airborne "rapid damage assessment teams," grounded much of the day by high winds, were checking electrical systems, roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
He said helicopters were also carrying food, water and satellite phones to affected areas, and crews had no immediate reports of oil or chemical spills. Still, he cautioned that "the storm is not yet over."
For the first time, the military will use a grid system designed for warfare to carry out searches in the stricken area, Rear Adm. Joseph Kilkenny, commander of Carrier Strike Group 10, said aboard the USS Iwo Jima as it steamed for the Texas-Louisiana border. He said all search parties will use the same grids to prevent a repeat of chaotic searches in the aftermath of Katrina.
Rita came ashore about 3:30 a.m. just east of Sabine Pass, on the Texas-Louisiana border. It was a Category 3 hurricane, smacking into Lake Charles and neighboring Port Arthur, Tex., with wind, rain and a 15-foot storm surge, then churning northward up the Sabine River.
Beaumont, Tex., a town of 113,000 whose 1901 Spindletop oil strike turned the Houston area into the hub of America's petroleum industry, lost power early Saturday and had minor flooding and some lost roofs. Officials said tens of thousands of evacuees would be kept out of town until services had improved.
Farther east, damage was more severe. In Vidor, five miles from Beaumont, single-story apartments were flooded and trees punched holes in roofs. "It's bad. It's bad," said a policeman there, cruising slowly past the houses.
Boilermaker Keith Kirkland, 31, a Vidor resident, tried to flee but could not find a hotel for his wife and two young children. They returned to Vidor but had to abandon their 55-year-old frame house in favor of a Baptist church built of logs.
"My kids thought it was fun," Kirkland said, but "it was scary. We saw the storm moving big concrete pieces." Late Saturday morning, he splashed through the knee-high water to find his house -- amazingly -- still standing.
The area's major highway, Interstate 10, was blocked by fallen trees. A tractor-trailer lay on its side at midday, its turn signals still blinking. Farther north on Highway 69, gusty winds and heavy rain punished the small towns nestling in the piney woods near Jasper, Tex.
Motorists dodged large trees split by the storm or uprooted into the road. Vehicles parked off the highway were up to their steering wheels in floodwater. Many homes and businesses had shed roofs that slid along the rain-slick highways.
About 25 miles from Beaumont, Linda Stinson, 56, spent the night in an elementary school with her husband, a firefighter, an experience she did not plan to repeat: "The next time there's a storm, I'm going to get out of here," she said. "It sounded like a freight train."
Lake Charles was particularly hard-hit. On the approach to the city, water lapped at the first-floor windows of buildings, intersections were underwater, traffic lights hung precariously low, and three-foot-diameter trees bisected houses.
Brent McManus, 45, returned to find his lakefront home flooded to the second floor. His children's swing set and a six-foot-high fence had disappeared beneath the lake's surface. Federal authorities "told me this property was the fifth most likely to flood in Lake Charles," McManus acknowledged. "They wanted me to build it higher. I guess this time I will."
McManus's neighbor, Judson McCann, 69, stayed in his home through the storm, taking refuge in a room atop the garage: "It was very noisy and dark, and with the rain, you couldn't see across the lake," McCann said. "So I didn't know it was rising." When daylight finally arrived, he found the lake lapping at the garage.
"It was worse than I thought," Lake Charles resident Paul Tabarelli, 27, said. "The house was shaking." Tabarelli boarded up the outside of the house before taking refuge with two friends. A sheet-metal window guard clung to the side of the house bearing the spray-painted legend: "Three people inside."
Gugliotta 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.