ANITA KUMAR, TAMARA LUSH and CRAIG PITTMAN
Rita packs a punch, but Katrina was worse
BEAUMONT, Texas - To the relief of everyone in Louisiana and Texas, Hurricane Rita was no Katrina.
The Category 3 storm, which slammed ashore early Saturday with 120-mph winds, flooded homes and knocked out power for more than 1-million people in three states but spared much of the region the cataclysmic destruction left behind by Category 4 Katrina just four weeks ago.
Rita caused widespread damage and some injuries, but late Saturday night only one fatality was reported, a Mississippian killed by a Rita-spawned tornado. Katrina, in contrast, killed more than 1,000 people.
The storm sparked several fires, including one that burned down three buildings in Galveston. Still, noted R. David Paulison, the new acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, "the damage is not as serious as we expected it to be."
Like Katrina, Rita's biggest weapon was not wind but water, and lots of it.
Its 15-foot storm surge swamped several Louisiana towns, stranding an estimated 1,000 people. A makeshift armada of Cajuns in bass boats and pirogues rescued their neighbors and relatives, moving quicker than the bureaucracy.
Coast Guard helicopters buzzed over Louisiana's Cajun country saving hundreds of stranded storm victims, including a pregnant woman and her 4-year-old son in Port Lafourche, 60 miles south of New Orleans.
"Most of the town was already under water from Katrina," said Coast Guard Lt. Roberto Torres, the pilot who airlifted them out. "And what wasn't got flooded by Rita."
Earlier in the week Rita promised to be even worse than Katrina, growing to a Category 5 storm with 175 mph winds. But by the time it made landfall at the mouth of the Sabine River on the Texas-Louisiana border about 3:30 a.m. Saturday, it had weakened.
Rita came ashore about 30 miles from Beaumont, a Texas port city of about 100,000 that's just off Interstate 10 and close by the Louisiana border.
The one-two punch from Katrina and Rita marks the first time in 112 years Louisiana has been hit by two hurricanes in the same season, and the first time ever the state has been clobbered by two major hurricanes in a row.
"Don't mess with Mother Nature, baby boy," said Geoffrey Barbry, 42, who was rescued from his Lake Charles, La., mobile home after Rita flipped it.
Officials in Texas and Louisiana urged evacuated residents to stay put for the next day or two. But by noon, roads into Houston already were clogged.
Mindful of the criticism that followed the government's failures in dealing with Katrina's aftermath, federal agencies quickly swung into action. The Pentagon dispatched 500 active duty troops and put 27,000 National Guard soldiers on standby. Navy ships were positioned nearby, and FEMA sent in helicopters, supplies and rescue teams.
Although evacuations from Houston caused three days of gridlock, officials said they had worked. "Every mayor that we have talking to is crediting the evacuations with the fact we have no reported deaths at this time," Paulison said.
President Bush, who remained on vacation for two days when Hurricane Katrina hit, took no chances this time, spending Saturday in Texas observing the government response to Rita.
"It comforts me knowing that our federal government is well-organized and well-prepared to deal with Rita," Bush said.
At Beaumont's nine-story Elegante Hotel, the windows blew out and rain leaked into the lobby. A chandelier crashed and part of the roof ripped off.
"We stayed in a stairwell most of the time," said Rainey Chretien, who works at the front desk. "I didn't think it was going to be this bad."
After Rita passed, there was no power or running water, so the evacuees holed up in the hotel were using the parking lot as a bathroom. The hotel had no food for anyone.
"People are hungry in here," said Yvette Sears, 46, a Beaumont resident who can't walk. "Where's the Red Cross? Where's the Salvation Army? Where's FEMA?"
In one damp hallway, Paula Armour's family sat in the dark, tired and bored. Their only food needed to be cooked, but there was no power. They hadn't eaten in more than a day.
Still, it could have been worse. Armour, 41, evacuated from New Orleans, one of an estimated 30,000 who fled to Beaumont because of Katrina. On TV she saw Rita had flooded her neighborhood a second time.
The Armours tried to flee Beaumont before Rita hit, but got caught in the evacuation gridlock that tied up traffic throughout Texas for hours. After traveling just 70 miles in 10 hours, they turned back, afraid they might run out gas.
When Rita threatened, Houston and its surrounding county did not open shelters. Instead officials encouraged millions of people to flee, tying up every highway out of town.
In the end, though, the American Red Cross sheltered about 15,000 people, many of whom had been rescued from the side of the road after running out of gas.
About 2,000 wound up at Livingston Junior High, normally about an hour north of Houston, when their cars overheated or they ran out of gas. Among them was Jenny Gregory, a 19-year-old from Humble, Texas, who was trying to get to Oklahoma but only made it about 50 miles after 12 hours. She said she became panicky and claustrophobic.
"I was thinking "We need to get gas now. Where's water, where's food ... what are we going to do?' " she said. "I was in a panic. It was scary."
The impact Rita might have on the gas supply for the rest of the country remains to be seen. Many oil refineries near Houston, including the largest on the Texas coast, reported no significant damage and announced plans to swiftly return to production. Several others closer to the storm's path, however, could be out of service for up to a month.
Before Rita hit, about 3-million people fled a 500-mile stretch of the Texas-Louisiana coast. Authorities in both states said no one should be in a hurry to return, since there is no power and, in many places, no gasoline.
"Be patient, stay put," said Texas Gov. Rick Perry. "If you are in a safe place with food, water, bedding, you are better remaining there for the time being."
However, many evacuees rushed back, complicating efforts to gain access to damaged areas by power crews and medical teams. Houston-bound traffic was at a standstill by noon on Interstate 10.
Some people never left, like Joaquin Ballesteros, 68. Although he is homeless and does not own a car, he still found a safe place to ride out the storm.
Ballesteros does odd jobs for a grocery store in Port Arthur, Texas, so when Rita's winds first kicked up, he headed to the store, toting a battery-powered radio, a jug of water and some food. But the store was closed. So as Rita started howling in earnest, he climbed inside an empty ice cooler outside the store and closed the double doors tight. He could hear the racket outside as sheets of aluminum blew past.
"There was a lot of noise," Ballesteros said in Spanish. "I felt safe."
The radio comforted him, but he didn't listen to the weather - just music.
"It didn't matter which type," he said. "I love it all."
Information from the Associated Press, New Orleans Times-Picayune, Washington Post, Lake Charles American Press, Houston Chronicle and MSNBC was used in this report.