LAKE CHARLES, La. - The tree tormented them for hours, conspiring with the wind in a steady drumbeat against their mobile home. Then, just before 4 a.m. Saturday, a branch slashed through the wall, exposing Hurricane Rita's pitch-dark fury.
Sheets of rain blinded Crystal Martin and her boyfriend, Ebaldo Acosta. Their 19-month-old daughter, Alexis, let out terrified cries from a back bedroom.
Martin had thought Rita would slam Texas. Instead, Lake Charles took some of the hardest blows.
"We're going to die right here," Martin said she thought as the storm tore through her family's mobile home.
But Acosta, a solidly built 51-year-old, pressed his back against the wall, sheltering his family from disaster. His knees soon grew weary, his back burning with pain.
"Get my boots," he screamed to Martin.
He laced them up and raced into the night. Standing at the door to a neighbor's mobile home, he kicked with all his might. Acosta ran home, scooped up their baby and left, Martin following close behind.
Huddling in their neighbor's empty home, they tried calling police several times. A dispatcher told them it wasn't safe to get them, so they waited till daylight, when Acosta flagged down an officer.
The family was taken to the Lake Charles Civic Center, joining others plucked from the storm or left homeless by its wrath.
Outside, waves off the lake surged closer to the building.
About 70,000 people live in this southwestern Louisiana city, and most were long gone when Hurricane Rita moved ashore early Saturday. Staying proved a dangerous miscalculation.
Scores of trees fell onto homes and vehicles while the wind tore off roofs and punched out windows. A supermarket collapsed. Harrah's Casino was twisted free from its barge and shoved ashore.
Tropical force winds persisted Saturday afternoon. Water pushed from the Gulf of Mexico surged into the lake, flooding downtown and neighborhoods on Contraband Bayou. Police took to boats to rescue stragglers. No deaths were reported, though house-to-house checks continued into the evening.
"Texas was where the action was supposed to be," Frank Walker said as he checked his law firm on Pithon Street for damage. "But it turns out we caught the worst of it."
Waiting in a darkened lobby for a bus to take them to a shelter in Alexandria, 100 miles northeast, the rescued looked tired and dejected.
One woman mumbled incoherently, saying she had somehow gotten there from Houston. She broke down in tears, unable to talk.
Sheila Cooks, her home flooded, obtained food at the Civic Center and then left in a red sedan with the back window blown out. "I'm really scared right now," she said, not sure where she would go.
"Make sure you put in there that I'm looking for my old man. I haven't seen him since the storm. His name is Earl Busch. Got that? Earl Busch."