HURRICANE RITA Rural areas suffer most devastation

Hundreds of thousands of residents were barred from returning to their homes.
BEAUMONT, Texas -- 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 last month of Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,000, displaced hundreds of thousands and is forecast to cost the federal government alone some $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, while costs were put in the low billions of dollars, and just two deaths were directly 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 would not be restored for weeks, authorities said. Police blocked exits off interstate highways leading to this city, which once held 110,000 people but is now largely a ghost town.
Rita, which hit the United States early Saturday with winds of 120 mph, up to a foot of rain and a 15-foot storm surge, caused its greatest harm in less-populated areas of Louisiana and Texas, near this city and Port Arthur. Some 2 million overall people lost power.
In a speech Sunday, Ben 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, a Republican, 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 were "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.
At the edges of the storm, rainfall and high water worsened problems in New Orleans, where repairs to a temporary levee were not enough to prevent parts of the city from flooding again. The Army Corps of Engineers dropped sandbags to plug the gap as city officials tried to pump the latest floodwaters from the city. Thad Allen, who is leading the federal government's Katrina recovery efforts, said it could take until June to rebuild the levees.
In Baton Rouge, President 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 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 Ray Nagin said the city will reopen to business owners and residents of the Algiers neighborhood starting today.
Houston, spared Rita's full wrath, slowly began to return to life 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; residents in the stricken areas, with images of Katrina's devastation fresh in their minds, evacuated in large numbers; and 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, for example, 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.

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