More than a million people were without electricity on Sunday and many coastal towns suffered major storm damage after the second ferocious hurricane to sweep off the Gulf of Mexico in less than a month came ashore early on Saturday, AFP reported.
But Texas and Louisiana officials spoke of “miracles” after Category 3 Rita failed to match the devastating force of Hurricane Katrina, a Category 4 storm that killed more than 1000 people and inundated New Orleans after it struck the region on 29 August.
Roofs were ripped off in the winds, businesses were razed by fire and floods spread through low-lying towns, but the region’s vital oil infrastructure was relatively unscathed and there were few reports of casualties.
The authorities in central Mississippi reported one death from a tornado which spun off the remnants of Rita, but Louisiana officials reported no casualties after rescue teams scoured abandoned homes for bodies.
Rita damaged oil facilities but
Oil prices fell sharply on Sunday during extraordinary trading in New York as first reports indicated that Rita caused less damage than feared to the Gulf’s oil refineries and offshore platforms.
“The good news is it appears that there’s been no loss of life. I mean, that’s almost a miracle, a blessing,” Texas governor Rick Perry told the Fox news channel.
“The cleanup effort is just beginning. And we want to ask people to stay where they are. Don’t be coming back into this area, certainly. It’s still dangerous.”
US President George Bush, under heavy fire for the bungled response to Katrina, also warned “the situation is still dangerous” in many areas and urged evacuees not to rush home.
Almost three million people, much of the population of Houston and almost all the residents of a series of smaller towns along the coast, fled their homes as the storm approached on Friday, causing mayhem on the roads and raising new questions about federal disaster management.
Sail boats damaged in the wake
Bush praised the work of state and federal emergency response agencies in the aftermath of the storm but suggested US armed forces ought to take over all government response efforts to some major natural disasters.
“Is there a natural disaster which – of a certain size -would then enable the defence department to become the lead agency in coordinating and leading the response effort?” he asked after hearing the joint task force running the reaction to Rita at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas.
“That’s going to be a very important consideration for Congress to think about,” Bush said.
Rita hit the Louisiana and Texas coastlines with winds at 195kph and sheets of rain, but by early Sunday it was no more – downgraded by the National Hurricane Centre to a nameless tropical depression.
No deaths were reported in Louisiana and Texas, although 24 elderly evacuees were killed in an oxygen canister explosion and fire in a bus on Friday as they joined the messy exodus from the danger zone.
An elderly woman also succumbed to heat exhaustion in a traffic jam.
Flooding was reported in Port Arthur, Texas, close to where Rita’s swirling eye came ashore. Cars lay smashed on the streets and the main refinery was out of reach.
The authorities arrested nine people for looting in the town and ordered a curfew to prevent a repeat of the lawlessness which gripped New Orleans after Katrina.
In nearby Lake Charles, police and fire crews went on a house-to-house hunt looking for bodies but found none.
New flooding hit low-lying areas
New Orleans, devastated by Katrina barely three weeks ago, endured a second straight day of new flooding.
An Army Corps of Engineers spokesman said on Sunday that the re-flooded areas could be pumped dry within a week after levee damage is repaired, far sooner than initially predicted, AP reported.
Some New Orleans residents who had evacuated to Houston because of Katrina were forced to move again as Rita approached.
“We’re tired of being pushed from place to place,” said Cora Washington, 59, as she and her family sat on cots in Texas A&M University’s basketball arena in College Station.
“We want to try to go back to New Orleans and pick up the pieces.”