BEAUMONT, Texas – Hurricane Rita's imprint (search) — washed-out towns, wind damage and trapped residents — became ever-more apparent Sunday as authorities took stock of the wreckage and Houston braced for the return of nearly 3 million evacuees.
While Rita didn't match the destructive power of Hurricane Katrina (search), it still left a massive trail of destruction in Texas and Louisiana. The storm caused "tens of millions of dollars" in structural damage in the Houston area alone, Harris County Tax Collector-Assessor Paul Bettencourt estimated.
Other, smaller places were hit much harder. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco surveyed devastated coastal towns by helicopter.
Fishing communities in Cameron Parish were reduced to splinters, with concrete slabs the only evidence of homes that once stood there. Debris was strewn for miles by water or wind. Holly Beach, a popular vacation and fishing spot, was simply gone — white caps on the Gulf of Mexico (search) lapping where camps had been.
"Everything is just obliterated," Blanco told a room of emergency officials in Lake Charles' 911 emergency operations center when she returned.
Rescue crews searched for people still stranded by floodwaters. Hundreds may still be trapped in Vermilion Parish's far-flung regions near the Gulf of Mexico, according to Jason Harmon, spokesman for the Abbeville Fire Department.
Texas officials set up regions that would reopen to evacuees on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, and Gov. Rick Perry urged Houston residents to respect the schedule laid out for an "orderly migration." Commercial airline service to the city also resumed Sunday; many flights in were booked.
Houston Mayor Bill White, wanting to avoid the gridlock that occurred as people fled from Rita, asked gas station attendants, convenience store clerks and grocery store workers to come back quickly. "There is some fuel available in tankers, but they can't deliver it if you're not there," he said.
Not all Texans were happy with a slow return home. John Willy, the top elected official in Brazoria County, southwest of Houston, said he would ignore the staggered return plan.
"I am not going to wait for our neighbors to the north to get home and take a nap, before I ask our good people to come home," he said in a statement. "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."
Perry toured the badly hit Beaumont area by air on 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."
He said the region has been secured by law enforcement, but does not have water and sewer services available. He urged residents to stay out for now, though the statewide picture was better.
"Even though the people right here in Beaumont and Port Arthur and this part of Orange County really got whacked, the rest of the state missed a bullet," Perry said.
In contrast to Katrina, with its death toll of more than 1,000, only one death had been attributed to Rita by Saturday night — a person killed in Mississippi when a tornado spawned by the hurricane overturned a mobile home.
During the evacuation, however, a bus caught fire south of Dallas while stuck in traffic, killing as many as 24 nursing home residents.
Rita downed trees, sparked fires across the hurricane zone and swamped Louisiana shoreline towns with a 15-foot storm surge that required daring boat and helicopter rescues of hundreds of people. Utilities across the region started to make progress restoring power Sunday, though hundreds of thousands of customers were still without electricity.
A federal prison complex in Beaumont with high-, medium- and low-security facilities lost power during the storm and had to go to emergency generators, said Alan Knapp, deputy chief of staff to Rep. Ted Poe, a Republican whose district took the direct hit from Rita.
FEMA was trying to get more generators to the prison Sunday morning because its generators were running low, Knapp said. "Guards were having to guard inmates with little to no electricity," he said.
Search and rescue teams working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived late Saturday in Lake Charles, La., in a convoy of about a dozen vehicles loaded with water, ready-to-eat meals, medical supplies and fuel.
Authorities used military helicopters and an air-conditioned bus Saturday night to move some of the 83 nursing home residents from Beaumont who had been stranded at an elementary school without power since Friday afternoon.
"It's scary," said Jack Fair, 68, who is undergoing rehabilitation for a concussion. "It's nobody's fault. There's just too much going on." Fair said he was more concerned about fellow residents who were afraid of the dark.
Damage to the vital concentration of oil refineries along the coast appeared relatively light, although industry officials said it was too early to assess whether there would be an impact on oil prices.
Valero Energy Corp. said its 255,000-barrel-per-day Port Arthur refinery sustained significant damage to two cooling towers and a flare stack and would need at least two weeks for repairs.
Rita roared ashore early Saturday close to the Texas-Louisiana state line as a Category 3 hurricane with top winds of 120 mph and warnings of up to 25 inches of rain. By early Sunday, it was a tropical depression with top sustained winds of 20 mph located about 20 miles southeast of Hot Springs, Ark.
New Orleans, devastated by Katrina barely three weeks ago, endured two days of new flooding, but an Army Corps of Engineers spokesman said Sunday that the re-flooded areas could be pumped dry within a week after levee damage is repaired, far sooner than initially predicted.
President Bush, stung by criticism the federal government was slow to respond to Katrina three weeks ago, visited the Texas emergency operations center in Austin on Saturday. He traveled to Baton Rouge on Sunday.
"Even though the storm has passed the coastline, the situation is still dangerous because of potential flooding," Bush said. "People who are safe now ought to remain in safe conditions."