BEAUMONT, Texas – People who fled coastal towns in Texas and Louisiana in preparation for Hurricane Rita (search) were returning to their homes Monday as some New Orleans residents were told to come back and help rebuild those parts of the Crescent City that weren't underwater.
As Rita's waters receded along the Texas-Louisiana coast Monday, rescuers pushed their way into once-inaccessible neighborhoods, using skiffs to take flooded-out residents to safety. The Army sent out Black Hawk helicopters to find thousands of cattle feared trapped in high water.
The death toll climbed to seven when the bodies of five people were discovered in a Beaumont apartment.
The five — a man, a woman and three children — apparently were overcome by carbon monoxide from a generator they were using after the hurricane knocked out the electricity over the weekend, authorities said. The children's aunt discovered the bodies after going to check on the group.
One person was killed in Mississippi when a tornado spawned by the hurricane overturned a mobile home, and an east Texas man was struck by a falling tree. Two dozen evacuees were killed before the storm hit in a bus fire near Dallas.
But officials credited the epic evacuation of 3 million people for countless saved 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.
Meanwhile, the office of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (search) announced that residents of Algiers, which largely escaped the flooding brought by the twin onslaughts of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, would be able to return home starting at 10 a.m. Monday and "help us rebuild the city." Algiers has working power, water and sewer services.
In addition, business owners in the Central Business District, the French Quarter and the Uptown section would be allowed in to inspect property and clean up.
Other areas of the city remain under mandatory evacuation, the mayor's office said.
"With Hurricane Rita behind us, the task at hand is to bring New Orleans back," Nagin said. "We want people to return and help us rebuild the city. However, we want everyone to assess the risks and make an informed decision about re-entry plans."
Algiers, a neighborhood of 57,000 people across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter, also was the first section to reopen to residents last week, before the approach of Rita forced the city to halt its plan to reopen some neighborhoods.
And in Mississippi, a tornado spawned by the remnants of Hurricane Rita ripped through Mississippi State University's campus, injuring four people and forcing cancellation of Monday's classes.
The tornado was one of at least 14 twisters that touched down Sunday in that state, meteorologists said. At least three struck in Arkansas on Saturday. By dawn Monday, the fading remnants of Rita were centered 80 miles north-northwest of Indianapolis and moving to the north-northeast at 30 mph.
President Bush said Monday that the government is prepared to again tap into the Strategic Petroleum (search) Reserve to alleviate any new pain at the pump caused by Hurricane Rita's assault on the center of the nation's energy industry.
He also implied he will likely name a federal czar-like official to oversee the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast from the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. But he said that local officials must first produce a vision for how they want their rebuilt communities to look.
"I'm considering how best to balance the need for local vision and federal involvement," he said during a briefing from the Energy Department in Washington. "The vision and the element of reconstruction is just beginning and there may be a need for an interface with a particular person to help to make sure that the vision becomes reality."
'We've Never Had Water Like This'
Nearly 270 Marines from the Marine Corps' 4th Anti-Terrorism Battalion who spent two weeks aiding survivors of Hurricane Katrina have been sent to southwestern Louisiana to conduct search-and-rescue operations in the wake of Hurricane Rita.
They joined elements of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division and the U.S. Army's 35th Infantry Division in the operations. The USS Iwo Jima and USS Shreveport are also helping relief operations.
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.
Hard-hit towns along the Texas-Louisiana coast began to pick up the pieces Monday: Crews worked to clear roads of fallen trees so that utility workers could restore power to hundreds of thousands of people. Authorities began tallying the damage to rice and sugar cane fields, shrimp boats, refineries and ranches.
The Army used helicopters to search for stranded cattle in flooded-out southern Louisiana amid reports that more than 4,000 may have been killed.
"The big thing now is the focus on keeping the cattle alive," said Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, commander of the military task force handling Katrina's aftermath.
Rita flattened towns and swamped fields in Cameron and Vermilion parishes, just east of the Texas line. Scores of cattle were seen swimming in the brown floodwaters. Ranchers on horseback herded cattle into truck-drawn corrals.
"Take all the coastal parishes, they all had cattle," said Bob Felknor, spokesman for the Louisiana Cattlemen's Association. "My guess is we could be looking at least 15,000. It could be more than 30,000 in trouble."
Elsewhere, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he asked the military to set up temporary medical facilities at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston because Houston's hospitals have been overwhelmed with patients evacuated from outlying counties and are "at the breaking point."
"I think people expected that they could go to Houston because it has a world-famous medical center, but it's at capacity and they've had to shut down some facilities," he said.
The more than 110,000 people living in Beaumont were urged not to return home, though, since water, electricity and sewer services will not be restored for weeks. Police blocked exits off interstate highways leading to the city.
In Lake Charles, National Guardsmen patrolled the town and handed out bottled water and food to hundreds of people left without power. Scores of cars wrapped around the parking lot of the city civic center, picking up food and ice. The storm knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of customers in Louisiana and Texas.
Dorothy Anderson said she had not had time to get groceries before the storm because she was at a funeral out of town. "We got back and everything was closed," she said.
Mike Deroche, director of the Terrebonne Parish, La., Office of Emergency Preparedness, said Monday that the floodwaters were going down in most areas and that the parish had nearly 9,900 homes that were severely damaged.
"We're just starting to get back into some areas that we haven't been able to get to," Deroche said.
In Chauvin, a steady stream of people were brought by small boats from the flooded sections of Terrebonne Parish. Some cried as they hauled plastic bags filled with their possessions out of the skiffs that carried them to dry land.
Robert LeBlanc, director of the Vermilion Parish, La., Office of Emergency Preparedness, said that in addition to stranding thousands of cattle, the storm wiped out hunting camps that bring in tourists, and hurled shrimp boats up onto land.
"Knowing these people, most of them are hunters, trappers, farmers, they're not going to wait on FEMA or anyone else," he said. "They're going to do what they need to do. They're used to primitive conditions."
Hundreds returned to save what they could and begin rebuilding. Some of those who returned found floodwaters up to the rooftops, coffins and refrigerators bobbing in the water, and stilts where their houses once stood.
Yet it was clear that the misery wrought by Rita was not as bad as what Katrina inflicted.
Authorities said at least 16 Texas oil refineries remained shut down. But overall the Gulf Coast petrochemical installations that supply a quarter of the nation's gasoline suffered only a glancing blow, with just one major plant facing weeks of repairs.
Randy Roach, mayor of Lake Charles, told CBS's "The Early Show" his hard-hit seaport city of oil refineries and casinos would bounce back.
"The good news is that the water is going down, it's kind of back in the banks of the lake and our recovery process is well under way," he said. "The response has been tremendous. I really appreciate everything that the federal government has done to help us."
By Sunday night, a seemingly endless stream of charter buses, cars and sport utility vehicles clogged the southbound lanes of Interstate 45 into Houston.
On Monday, more and more traffic lights in Houston were working properly. A long line of customers waited outside a downtown Starbucks as it reopened for the first time. Customers sat outdoors with their drinks despite hot, humid weather.
The new round of flooding 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 wringing itself out with disastrous consequences.
The Army Corps of Engineers used rocks and sandbags to try to plug the levee that failed during Rita and swamped the already-devastated Ninth Ward. Workers believe that once the breaches are closed, the Ninth Ward can be pumped dry in a week.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.