PERRY, La. – People checking their hurricane-hit homes and towns returned with stories of flooding to the rooftops, coffins and refrigerators bobbing in the water, and stilts where their houses once stood.
Yet as the misery wrought by Hurricane Rita (search) came into clearer view — particularly in the marshy towns along the Texas-Louisiana line — officials credited the epic evacuation of 3 million people for saved countless lives.
"As bad as it could have been, we came out of this in pretty good shape," said Texas Gov. Rick Perry (search), who called the lack of widespread fatalities "miraculous." By Sunday night, just two deaths had been blamed directly on Rita.
Authorities had trouble keeping people from southern Louisiana from traveling through floodwaters in their boats to discover whether Rita wrecked their homes and livelihoods.
"I've been through quite a few of them, and we've never had water like this," said L.E. Nix, whose home on the edge of a bayou in Louisiana's Calcasieu Parish (search) was swamped with 3 feet of water. "I had a little piece of paradise, and now I guess it's gone."
In Houston, which was spared the brunt of Rita, officials set up a voluntary, staggered plan for an "orderly migration" with different areas going home Sunday, Monday and Tuesday to avoid the massive gridlock that accompanied the exodus out.
By Sunday night, a seemingly endless stream of charter buses, cars and sport utility vehicles clogged the southbound lanes of Interstate 45 into Houston.
Coming on the heels of Hurricane Katrina (search), where many chose to ride out the storm with deadly consequences, the news coming from the aftermath of Rita was for the most part positive.
Petrochemical plants that supply a quarter of the nation's gasoline suffered only a glancing blow, with just one major plant facing weeks of repairs.
The reflooding in New Orleans from levee breaks was isolated mostly to areas already destroyed and deserted. And contrary to dire forecasts, Rita and its heavy rains moved quickly north instead of parking over the South for days and dumping a predicted 25 inches of rain.
Along the central Louisiana coastline, where Rita's heavy rains and storm-surge flooding pushed water up to 9 feet in homes and into fields of sugarcane and rice, weary evacuees slowly returned to see the damage.
Staring at the ground, shoulders stooped, clearly exhausted, many came back with stories of deer stuck on levees and cows swimming through seawater miles from the Gulf of Mexico.
"All I got now is my kids and my motorhome," said Tracy Savage, 33, whose house in rural Vermilion Parish (search) was four feet underwater.
More than 100 boats gassed up at an Abbeville car dealership Sunday before venturing out on search-and-rescue missions. Helicopters helped with house-to-house searches.
An estimated 1,000 people were rescued in Vermilion Parish, said Chief Sheriff's Deputy Kirk Frith. About 50 people remained on a 911 checklist, and Frith said authorities would probably conclude rescue operations by Monday and begin damage assessment.
Some bayou residents who arrived with boats in hopes of getting back into their property were turned away by state officials, but many ignored warnings to stay away.
"How are you going to stop them from going to their home to check on their dog or something like that?" Frith asked.
In Cameron Parish, just across the state line from Texas and in the path of Rita's harshest winds, fishing communities were reduced to splinters, with concrete slabs the only evidence that homes once stood there. Debris was strewn for miles by water or wind. Holly Beach, a popular vacation and fishing spot, was gone. Only the stilts that held houses off the ground remained.
A line of shrimp boats steamed through an oil sheen to reach Hackberry, only to find homes and camps had been flattened. In one area, there was a flooded high school football field, its bleachers and goal posts jutting from what had become part of the Gulf of Mexico.
"In Cameron, there's really hardly anything left. Everything is just obliterated," said Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (search), who has asked the federal government for $34 billion to aid in storm recovery.
After a briefing with Blanco in Baton Rouge, President Bush said: "I know the people of this state have been through a lot. We ask for God's blessings on them and their families."
Just across the state line, Texas' Perry toured the badly hit refinery towns of Beaumont and Port Arthur area by air Sunday.
"Look at that," he said, pointing to a private aircraft hangar with a roof that was half collapsed and half strewn across the surrounding field. "It looks like a blender just went over the top of it."
Among the deaths attributed to Rita was a person killed in north-central Mississippi when a tornado spawned by the hurricane overturned a mobile home, and an east Texas man struck by a fallen tree. Two dozen evacuees were killed before the storm hit in a fatal bus fire near Dallas.
In the Houston area, John Willy, the top elected official in Brazoria County southwest of the city, said he would ignore the state's staggered return plan.
"Our people are tired of the state's plan! They have a plan too and it's real simple. They plan to come home when they want," he said.
In New Orleans, the U.S. Corps of Engineers moved rocks and sandbags into the holes that broke open in the Industrial Canal levee as Rita closed in, flooding the already devastated Lower Ninth Ward. Workers believe that once the breaches are closed, the Ninth Ward can be pumped dry in a week.
Mayor Ray Nagin (search) immediately renewed his plan to allow some residents to return to drier parts of the city. Those areas — including the once-raucous French Quarter — could eventually support a population of at least half of its pre-Katrina population of about 500,000 residents.