Storm-Battered Texas and Louisiana Pick Up the Pieces

BEAUMONT, Texas, September 26, 2005 (ENS) - Two of the deaths blamed on Hurricane Rita occurred Saturday when two Beaumont area residents were killed after high winds blew through Liberty County, toppling a large oak tree that crushed their mobile home.

Twenty-three nursing home patients died when a bus evacuating them from Houston caught fire on Interstate 45. Of the 37 patients aboard, 14 survived. Of the survivors, four were originally evacuated from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Now Rita has been downgraded to a Tropical Depression, and today the storm heads from northeast Arkansas into the Ohio River Valley, dumping heavy rains on Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

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Flooded Cajun country waits for storm surge to recede. (Photo credit unknown)
While the storm missed Houston and Galveston, officials are crediting a unprecedented evacuation effort for saving countless lives. Texas Governor Rick Perry said the lack of widespread fatalities was "miraculous." Texas safely evacuated some 2.7 million people in 36 hours. By comparison, the governor's office said 200,000 were evacuated from Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear accident.

Rita made landfall just northeast of the town of Sabine Pass as a Category 3 hurricane at 2:30 Saturday morning. Saturday evening, President George W. Bush issued major disaster declarations for Louisiana and Texas due to the hurricane.

Water three feet deep flowed through the Sabine Pass streets on Sunday as an Oklahoma rescue team went house to house looking for survivors who decided not to obey the mandatory evacuation order. Team members told the Beaumont "Enterprise" that they saw alligators and water moccasins swimming through the water in the streets of this town, which is outside the seawall and levee that protected other Jefferson County towns from flood damage.

In Port Arthur, Mayor Oscar Ortiz learned early Sunday morning that his house had burned down overnight, sparked by overheated wiring in a family member's car parked in his garage. But Ortiz has little time to deal with his own loss. From a makeshift command center at a local hotel, the mayor is working with federal, state and local officials to help the battered city recover from the punishing storm.

Ortiz

Port Arthur Mayor Oscar Ortiz lost his home due to the Hurricane. (Photo courtesy Office of Congressman Ted Poe)
Power is still out across Port Arthur and water pressure is minimal. Tree limbs litter the streets. Despite some flooding, Port Arthur avoided the predicted 20 foot storm surge that could have swamped the town.

Four Beaumont houses burned to the ground during the storm, fire officials said.

In Port Neches, the water plant was damaged, Mayor Glenn Johnson said. Looting reports were numerous throughout the region.

Mid-County and Port Arthur officials are asking residents to stay away until water, sewer and electricity can be restored and tree limbs, fallen power poles, and other debris, can be cleared. They said it could be several weeks before the streets are restored.

Frustrated disaster response coordinators told the "Enterprise" Sunday that they were seeing the same reluctant federal response to Hurricane Rita as Louisiana and Mississippi suffered during Hurricane Katrina earlier this month.

Local leaders said there is a problem getting the generators that were brought in for the relief effort. "There's a drastic shortage of generators in Beaumont to provide emergency power," Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said. "There are generators at Ford Park, and FEMA is withholding their release. They want to finish their damage assessment."

Jefferson County officials had a plan to distribute Meals-Ready-to-Eat from local fire stations, the paper said in an Internet edition. However, Griffith said the meals, like the generators, were being withheld by FEMA.

FEMA says more than 1,200 FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Teams are on the ground in Texas and Louisiana, and hundreds of trucks of ice and water have been sent out.

Across the hurricane affected region, road crews from local and state agencies are out clearing streets, and workers are attempting to restore power. Curfews have been put in place, generally from dusk until dawn, and on Sunday troopers from the Texas Department of Public Safety were turning returning residents back on U.S. 69 and Twin City Highway.

Entergy is asking electricity customers in its western area north of Houston to voluntarily reduce their usage of electricity. The unusual appeal is the result of extensive damage to Entergy's transmission system caused by Hurricane Rita and the anticipated high demand for electricity due to high temperatures.

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Utility companies were out early to repair damage caused by Hurricane Rita. In Houston, Center Point Energy personnel repair a downed power line on Old Spanish Trail. (Photo by Ed Edahl courtesy FEMA)
Key transmission lines that could bring electrical power from the East are out of service, the utility said this morning. Hurricane Rita damaged conductors and both wooden and steel transmission towers.

The three generating units still operating in the area are insufficient to supply the needed power. They are the two units at Entergy's Lewis Creek station, located in Willis, Texas, and a merchant power plant.

If sufficient load reduction is not achieved voluntarily, rolling outages may be needed to avoid a blackout that could affect the area for an extended period, Entergy warned.

The outages should not affect electricity to public safety or public health services. Entergy has curtailed power to some industrial customers pursuant to special agreements that allow them to be curtailed.

The storm affected electric generating stations as far away as Mississippi. Officials at Entergy's Grand Gulf nuclear power plant lost their emergency sirens. "Due to weather from Hurricane Rita, 15 of the 43 emergency sirens are inoperable. This places the number of required sirens less than the required operability rate of 75 percent. A recovery effort is in progress," they told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Grand Gulf was selected last week as one of two locations for new nuclear power plant construction.

All other nuclear power plants in the hurricane affected area are operating normally.

State health officials said today that high temperatures and humidity in southeast Texas can increase the danger for Hurricane Rita evacuees who return to their homes before local officials say they should.

"High temperatures, high humidity, no electricity for air conditioning or fans, no drinkable water, limited emergency services - it's a dangerous mix," warned Texas State Health Services Commissioner Eduardo Sanchez. "It's one more reason evacuees should stay put until the cities and counties are ready for them. Don't put yourself or your family in unnecessary danger," he said.

Noting the high-90s and triple-digit thermometer readings throughout most of Texas, Sanchez advised, "Take it easy. Don't overdo it. Drink plenty of water."

On Sunday, Governor Perry flew over the hurricane impact zone by helicopter and met with local officials to ensure their relief needs are met as swiftly as possible.

“While much of Texas escaped the brunt of Hurricane Rita, this storm has still inflicted serious damage in many parts of southeast Texas,” Perry said. “The state is working overtime with local and federal partners to meet critical and immediate needs such as food, water, ice, fuel and electricity.”

Perry praised local leaders for their efforts to protect citizens and assured them that the state is pouring maximum resources and personnel into the region to ensure critical needs are met as soon as possible.

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Trees blown down by Hurricane Rita damage a home in Orange, Texas. (Photo courtesy Michael T. Gilbert)
“We have sent nearly 8.5 million bottles of water, thousands of pounds of food, gasoline and electric generators to impacted communities,” Perry said. “Every need that is identified will be met as soon as possible.”

Perry also said the magnitude of this evacuation, response and relief effort is unlike any other in American history. “Not only did we effectively move the equivalent of the entire population of Kansas in 36 hours, we are responding with unprecedented coordination to ensure that every life is preserved and protected,” Perry said.

As of Sunday morning the governor's office said, 167 water trucks containing nearly 8.5 million half-liter bottles of water, 60 ice trucks, and 17 refrigerated trucks staging in Beaumont have been or are being dispatched to impacted areas.

Some 265 satellite phones have been delivered to ensure local officials can communicate with state and federal relief efforts, and 154 generators have been delivered to communities suffering power losses, with a priority given to hospitals and medical facilities.

More than 500,000 gallons of fuel have been delivered to impacted areas since Thursday, including more than 25,000 gallons dispensed directly to over 5,000 stranded motorists who ran out of gas on their flight from Houston and Galveston.

Texas and Louisiana petrochemical plants that supply a quarter of the nation's gasoline withstood the storm with minor damage, with only one major plant facing weeks of repairs. Of the 38 Mobile Offshore Drilling Units in the path of Hurricane Rita, eight are reported adrift.

To date, the Coast Guard has rescued 120 people imperiled by flood waters and has medically evacuated two others from hospitals in the hurricane-impacted area. More than 4,000 Coast Guardsmen are assessing the damage to waterways, aids to navigation, the environment and maritime transportation system infrastructure in the wake of Hurricane Rita.

In Texas, the ports and waterways of Houston, Galveston, Freeport, Texas City, Port Arthur, Beaumont, Victoria Barge Canal and Port of Orange remain closed to vessel traffic, while the ports and waterways of Brownsville, Corpus Christi and Port Lavaca are open.

In Louisiana the ports and waterways of Sabine Pass, Lake Charles, Baton Rouge, Morgan City, Fourchon, Houma, New Orleans, Venice, Plaquemines, St. Bernard Parish, Grand Isle and Port of Shreveport remain closed.

The Lower Mississippi River is open however deep draft vessels are limited to daylight operations only below Head of Passes (mile marker 0.0). The Red River and Atchafalya River are now open, the Coast Guard reports.

damage

This area in New Orleans' 9th Ward that was damaged by Hurricane Katrina had a levee break and began flooding again on Saturday. (Photo by Jocelyn Augustino courtesy FEMA-)
In Louisiana, parts of New Orleans newly dewatered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reflooded as levees broke again under the force of Hurricane Rita. But officials say damage was mostly confined to areas already destroyed and deserted such as the 9th Ward.

The I-10 Bridge over Lake Charles is closed after a barge struck the bridge during Hurricane Rita. The Louisiana Department of Transportation sent a crew of divers down to help determine the extent of damage to the bridge.

At this time, no major pollution incidents have been reported as a result of damage from Hurricane Rita, according to the Coast Guard.

Along the central Louisiana coast, Rita's heavy rains and storm-surge floods flooded homes and fields of rice and sugarcane and littered roadways with debris.

There are numerous trees and power lines down across the area. At 7:30 am Saturday, after the eye of Hurricane Rita passed, Louisiana state troopers began clearing paths from fallen trees on state and federal roadways.

Nearly 4,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen equipped with helicopters, boats, high water vehicles and chainsaws moved out along the coast Sunday for search, rescue, damage assessment, debris removal and road-cleaning duties, a spokesman for the Office of Emergency Preparedness said.

On Sunday, the President and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco were briefed on the response to Hurricane Rita at the FEMA Joint Field Office in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The President asked people to refrain from returning to their properties until the governor says it is safe.

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President George W. Bush and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco participate in a briefing on Hurricane Rita at the FEMA Joint Field Office in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Photo by Eric Draper courtesy The White House)
"I know a lot of people want to get back home," Bush said. "It's important that there be an orderly process. It's important there be an assessment done of infrastructure. And it's important for the people of the affected areas of Louisiana to listen carefully to the governor and local authorities about the proper timing of return home."

Governor Blanco has requested $32 billion to help cover the costs of repairing the damage from the two hurricanes. She asked the President to combine the response for Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita into one incident so that resources and aid can be expedited to Louisiana families quickly and efficiently.

She also asked the President to allow FEMA to pay the base salaries of local police, deputies, and firefighters, as current regulations do not allow for reimbursement of the salaries of public personnel.

As of Sunday, 47 parishes had declared States of Emergency due to effects of Hurricane Rita. More than 630,000 people in Louisiania are without power this morning. Approximately 401,000 outages are the result of Hurricane Rita, while 238,000 outages are Katrina related.

More than 350,000 Louisianians are without telephone service, and more than 24,000 are without natural gas utilities.

Early Sunday morning President Bush attended Randolph Air Force Base San Antonio, Texas for a briefing on the Texas impacts and the role of the federal government and the military in responding to natural disasters.

"Part of the reason I've come down here," said the President, "was to better understand how the federal government can plan and surge equipment, to mitigate natural disasters."

Bush said he was also considering the circumstances in which the Department of Defense becomes the lead agency instead of civilian agencies that now are in charge.

"Clearly, in the case of a terrorist attack, that would be the case, but is there a natural disaster which - of a certain size that would then enable the Defense Department to become the lead agency in coordinating and leading the response effort," the President said. "That's going to be a very important consideration for Congress to think about."