Hurricane Rita's floodwaters receded Sunday along the Texas-Louisiana coastline, revealing devastated rural communities but lighter-than-expected damage to major population centers and to vital energy facilities in the area.
After the catastrophic impact of Hurricane Katrina, which since it struck in late August has killed more than 1,000, displaced hundreds of thousands and is forecast to cost the federal government alone about $200 billion, Rita's impact was closer to that of other major hurricanes. Most of the more than 3 million people who evacuated in advance of the storm were preparing to return home. Costs were put in the low billions of dollars and only two deaths were attributed to the storm.
Still, hundreds of thousands of people were told they could not return to their homes in southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana because water, power, sewage and emergency services will not be restored for weeks, authorities said. Police blocked exits off interstate highways leading to Beaumont, which once held 110,000 people but is now largely a ghost town.
Rita hit the United States early Saturday with winds of 120 mph, bringing up to a foot of rain and a 15-foot storm surge. It caused the greatest harm in less-populated areas of Louisiana and Texas, near this city and Port Arthur. About 2 million people overall lost power.
In a speech on Sunday, Ben S. Bernanke, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said Rita's "effects appear to be relatively modest" on economic growth. Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) said the storm was "not anywhere near as bad as we thought it was going to be." Speaking on "Fox News Sunday," he said oil platforms and refineries in the area are "in relatively good shape."
Perry, on CNN's "Late Edition," put the damage in his state at about $8 billion; that would rank Rita far behind Katrina in impact but still among the most damaging storms to hit the United States.
Rita may also lead to changes in government policy. Officials are reviewing urban evacuation plans after suffocating traffic blocked departures from Houston. President Bush suggested that Congress examine whether the military should play a larger role in reacting to domestic disasters.
At the edges of the storm, rainfall and high water worsened problems in New Orleans, where repairs to a temporary levee could not prevent parts of the city from flooding again. The Army Corps of Engineers dropped sandbags to plug the gap as officials tried to pump the latest floodwaters from the city. Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, who is leading the federal government's Katrina recovery efforts, said it could take until June to rebuild the levees.
In Baton Rouge, La., Bush was given what he called an "optimistic appraisal" of the New Orleans flood-control system. The president, who is expected to travel to the region on Tuesday for the seventh time since Katrina struck, cautioned people in Louisiana and Texas to heed state leaders' advice on when it was safe to return home. New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said the city will reopen to business owners and residents of the Algiers neighborhood starting Monday.
Houston, spared Rita's full wrath, slowly began to return to life on Sunday, as some of its 2 million residents returned. Perry urged an "orderly migration" back to Houston, after the enormous traffic jams that marred the evacuation of that city before the storm.
Officials attributed Rita's lesser impact to several factors. The storm did not produce the rainfall that had been predicted, and it missed urban areas such as Houston and Galveston, Tex. Also, residents in the stricken areas, with images of Katrina's devastation fresh in their minds, evacuated in large numbers; government agencies at all levels, anxious not to repeat the slow response to Katrina, quickly rescued the stranded and delivered relief supplies using airlifts and trucks.
R. David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said there was "absolutely phenomenal" coordination and preparation. He said many preparations went unneeded. Texas received 3.8 million liters of water, 193 truckloads of ice and 320,000 military meal rations, but "we've had minimal requests for some of those commodities," Paulison said. He said FEMA would move more water and ice to Louisiana.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), in an interview Sunday in Austin, said: "I think what happened in Texas demonstrates that when state, local and federal officials have a plan and work together, it can work successfully."
Still, the response was not trouble-free in the worst-hit areas. In addition to Beaumont, authorities blocked Port Arthur, Orange and other towns, and Louisiana officials in hard-hit areas across the state line made similar pleas for patience, painting a bleak picture of the storm's havoc.
"This is not a livable place," said Dick Nugent, mayor of Nederland, south of Beaumont. "We do not have water yet. We do not have power yet. All we have is a mess."
Frustrations were evident at all levels. Residents caught in the gridlock of evacuation were locked out of their communities. Local officials offered some of the first vocal complaints about the federal response to Hurricane Rita, saying the government was ensnarled in red tape.
"We've got 50 generators sitting on trailers that would get water and sewer back running, but they won't let us unload them," fumed Carl Griffith, the administrative judge of Jefferson County in Texas. "There's still a breakdown of communication between the state and federal government."
Griffith said he was forced to rage at federal authorities to instigate the airlift that took more than 1,300 patients out of local hospitals and nursing homes, and whenever he appealed for help, "All I get is, 'Sorry, can't do that.' "
Across the region, water, electric, telecommunications and other utilities were knocked out, as hundreds of thousands of trees were felled. The home of Port Arthur Mayor Oscar Ortiz burned down after the storm passed. "The fire department got there, but they had no water to pump," Griffith said.
Rita, though delivering a weaker-than-anticipated blow, added another major wave of suffering to the Gulf Coast, where 1.4 million people have registered with FEMA for help since Katrina struck. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D), after touring Cameron Parish near the Texas line, reported that "everything is just obliterated."
The Louisiana State University Health Care Services Division, which lost its flagship Charity Hospital in Katrina, evacuated hospitals in Lake Charles, Lafayette and Houma, CEO Don Smithburg said. "The hospitals Katrina didn't blast, Rita did," he said in an interview Sunday.
Entergy, the electric utility for southwestern Louisiana and eastern Texas, is bringing in 4,000 linemen and other workers from out of state. But their utility trucks are being led by crews of tree-removal squads that must first clear the roads.
Joe Domino, the CEO of Entergy, met with local officials and acknowledged that Rita was the worst storm he had seen in 35 years with the company. He said it "may be over a month for some customers" before power is restored.
The Energy Department reported Sunday that 1.5 million customers were without power in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi from the damage done by both hurricanes. Entergy warned of rolling blackouts if residents in unaffected parts of the state do not voluntarily cut back on power usage. Temperatures in much of southern Texas were in the nineties Sunday, reaching near-record highs.
Nearly a quarter of U.S. refining production, shuttered before Rita, remained closed Sunday. A refinery in Port Arthur and one in Beaumont were without power, and a second Port Arthur refinery was damaged and could remain out of service for two to four weeks. But companies were not predicting prolonged outages of facilities.
Major mobile phone companies said preliminary estimates suggested that damage from the storm had been far less than expected.
The optimistic assessments were little comfort to residents of the stricken shoreline. Ed Kane, sheriff of Hardin County, northwest of Beaumont, said even those who managed to stay will be told to leave. "Our county was closed off a half-hour ago, and those who are there are being urged to go," he said late Sunday.
Despite the orders to stay away, some people were attempting to return. Some were foiled by roadblocks; others by a lack of gasoline. Throughout the region, small groups of motorists gathered at stations, waiting for the pumps to resume providing gas.
Rosa Allen, 64, slept in her car Saturday night at a gasoline station a few miles out of Port Arthur, her home. She had fled before the storm to Shreveport, La., but found no shelter and no food there and turned around. She almost made it home before being stopped by the police and a gas gauge on empty.
"The police said they would have to arrest me if I stayed. I said I would welcome jail. At least they would give me a place to sleep, a toilet and some food," she said.
In Port Arthur, Jeff Savoy, 38, had scoffed at the storm on Saturday as he sat on his stoop, drinking beer, waiting for Rita. He was there again Sunday afternoon, looking decidedly more dejected. "I wish I would have left," he said. "We got through it. But this house was shaking. I didn't know whether we were coming or going."
Milbank reported from Washington. Staff writers Spencer S. Hsu, Ceci Connolly, Steve Hendrix, Arshad Mohammed and Justin Blum contributed to this report.