September 25, 2005

Rita pummels Gulf Coast

By Allan Dowd

LAKE CHARLES, Louisiana (Reuters) - Hurricane Rita left the
U.S. Gulf Coast reeling on Saturday from two powerful storms in
less than a month, with renewed flooding in New Orleans,
widespread power outages and roads across hundreds of miles
closed by debris, although damage was less than feared.

The storm slammed into lightly populated swamplands at the
Texas and Louisiana border, sparing Houston, the fourth-largest
U.S. city, but battering the oil city of Beaumont, Texas, and
Lake Charles, Louisiana, a gambling and chemicals center.

One storm-related death was reported in Belzoni,
Mississippi, where police said a person died in a tornado.

Some refiners in the region's huge oil industry were
hopeful they would find little harm from Rita, but damage to
oil rigs offshore was less clear.

"The damage is not as severe as we expected it would be,"
said David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency
Management Agency, in Washington, who credited the evacuation
of more than 2 million people with preventing storm deaths.

But he acknowledged problems that included traffic jams as
long as 100 miles leading out of Houston. Two dozen elderly
evacuees were killed on Friday when their bus burst into flames
south of Dallas.

Game wardens and other emergency workers used boats,
airboats and helicopters to try to rescue about 600 people who
defied evacuation orders and stayed behind only to be trapped
by floods in the heart of Louisiana's Cajun country, in
Abbeville, Pecan Island and Lafitte. Several were plucked from
the rooftops of their submerged homes.

High winds continued to push high water inland, making
rescue attempts by boat or helicopter perilous, Vermilion
Parish Sheriff Mike Couvillan said.

"We're risking lives to save their lives when they had an
opportunity to leave," he said.

The city of Lake Charles suffered a prolonged pounding as
the storm's center passed nearby. Lake water washed into the
mostly deserted downtown and a huge container ship was torn
from its moorings. Barges ricocheted off each other and slammed
into an overhead bridge of an interstate highway.

The airport was badly damaged, officials said, and
residents were asked to stay away for at least 48 hours.

Beaumont, Texas, where the U.S. oil age began with the
Spindletop oil well in 1901, was also hard hit by Rita. Its
warehouses and other light buildings all but disappeared,
although a feared storm surge never occurred, officials said.

"This is an emotional and devastating experience," said
Capt. Melissa Ownby of the Beaumont Police Department. "We've
had hurricanes, but we've never had this much devastation."

Authorities in Texas pleaded with residents to delay going
home and said gridlock was starting again as people began to
return to the densely populated Houston area.

"Be patient, stay put," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said. "There
are still concerns over flooding, fallen debris." Texas
authorities issued a plan to stagger the return of the evacuees
over the next three days.


Rita cut power to more than 2 million people in Texas and
Louisiana, already devastated by Hurricane Katrina on August

The storm made landfall with 120-mph (193-kph) winds and
punishing rains as a Category 3 hurricane. It weakened as it
moved inland and by early afternoon fell to tropical storm
status, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Pat Powell, of the Port Arthur Police, said he was sure his
house directly in the storm's path in Sabine Pass, Texas, was
destroyed. But he said: "My family's OK, so I'm not worried
about the house. I never liked that house that much anyhow and
I've got insurance."

Refiners were starting to tote up the damage to their
refineries, many of which appeared at first glance to have
survived relatively unscathed.

But it appeared significant damage was done to at least one
refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, and at two refineries in Lake
Charles, where 15-foot (4.6-meter) storm surges swept ashore.

Rita and Katrina knocked out nearly all energy production
in the offshore oil fields of the Gulf of Mexico and 30 percent
of the U.S. refining capacity onshore.

Rita caused $2.5 billion to $6 billion in insured losses in
eastern Texas and western Louisiana, three major catastrophe
risk modeling companies said. That was far less that had been
feared earlier in the week, when Rita was a Category 5
hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico with 175 mph (281 kph) winds.

But the twin blows of two harsh storms dealt a severe
setback to hundreds of miles of coastal areas.

"Rita has compounded Louisiana's pain and we are hurting
from the west side to the east side and significant parts in
between," Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said. She urged
federal relief efforts for the two storms be combined.

Late on Saturday, U.S. President George W. Bush issued
disaster declarations for Texas and Louisiana, clearing the way
for the federal government to provide financial assistance.

Several neighborhoods in New Orleans were flooded again,
less than a month after levees breached during Katrina and
submerged much of the city that remains largely deserted.
Katrina killed more than 1,000 people, mostly in Louisiana and

"Katrina was the wash cycle, Rita was the rinse cycle. I
hope we get time to hang on the line and dry and not go into
the spin cycle," New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said at a news

(Additional reporting by Matt Daily in Houston, Mark
Babineck in Port Arthur, Ellen Wulfhorst and Michael Christie
in Baton Rouge, Andy Sullivan in New Orleans, Kenneth Li in
Beaumont and Daisuke Wakabayashi in Austin)