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Hundreds of Survivors Are Rescued

Times Staff Writers

As Hurricane Rita’s high water began a slow retreat Sunday, rescue teams aided more stranded survivors and surveyed miles of sodden wreckage in the deluged lowlands of southern Louisiana.

Briny lakes left by the hurricane’s swollen tides blotted out ribbed peninsulas all along the state’s coast, swallowing up sugarcane fields and remote fishing towns. In the cane-farming town of Delcambre, more than 500 people were pulled to safety by searchers in powerboats. Farther east, 4,000 residents of Terrebonne Parish were in shelters Sunday after a tense day of helicopter and boat rescues.

“This is Mother Nature pushing the Gulf of Mexico onto you,” said Iberia Parish Sheriff Sid Hebert, who had watched animal carcasses and furniture bob in the unstoppable flood-wash.

In East Texas, emergency crews contended with miles of destruction in the coastal towns of Port Arthur and Beaumont. But in Houston, where damage was relatively light, thousands of evacuated residents were already returning in phases under a plan set by city officials.

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More than 48 hours after the hurricane tore north along the Louisiana-Texas border, authorities said there were no known deaths and few injuries in the two states. A tornado spawned by the hurricane caused one death Saturday in northern Mississippi.

Officials attributed the minimal death toll to the successful evacuation of more than 3 million people from the threatened gulf coastline and the government’s swift delivery of troops and supplies -- speedier than its performance a month ago after Hurricane Katrina. Rita’s landfall along a sparsely populated region also helped minimize casualties, as did the storm’s last-minute weakening.

As Coast Guard helicopters and boat-borne teams of National Guard troops and local volunteers moved deep into submerged Louisiana bayou towns that had been silent for more than a day, they found places like Pecan Island and Forked Island almost deserted. The few residents who stayed had apparently holed up in their homes or made it to safety on trawling boats.

“If we lost life, I’d be surprised,” Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said after a helicopter tour of the water-topped cane-farming towns where her Cajun ancestors had lived. Blanco said 98% of southern Louisiana’s residents had moved inland before the storm struck.

“The scene of devastation was staggering,” Blanco said. “In Cameron Parish, you can’t see where the [Interstate] 10 bridge begins and ends.”

During a meeting Sunday with President Bush and federal and military emergency officials, Blanco asked for $31.7 billion in new federal aid to repair flooded highways, improve evacuation routes and strengthen fragile levees in New Orleans and across the coast. A critic of the federal government’s lagging relief effort after Hurricane Katrina, Blanco praised a “timely response” this time.

Before huddling with Blanco, Bush met in San Antonio with generals who offered a blunt assessment of rescue efforts, suggesting a heightened role for the armed forces in responding to natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Bush said Congress should “think about” a plan under which the Defense Department would “become the lead agency in coordinating and leading the response effort” in natural disasters.

A contingent of 4,000 troops under the command of Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore quickly set up a staging area at an armory in Lafayette, La., in the hours after the Rita hit. By Sunday, Coast Guard helicopters and search craft carrying National Guard troops were working with sheriff’s deputies and fishermen, evacuating several thousand residents from bayou country in southwest Louisiana and from fishing and farming towns along the southeast peninsula.

Across southern Louisiana, search-and-rescue units were dispatched to 184 distress calls Sunday from residents stranded in their homes by floodwaters, National Guard Maj. Ed Bush said. By midday, more than 900 southwestern Louisiana residents had been hauled up from rooftops in helicopter slings or pulled into airboats and shallow-water craft, officials said. Most of the rescues in the southwestern part of the state, where nearly 713,000 people live, came in Vermilion, Lafitte and Iberia parishes.

“Things have gone extremely well today,” Maj. Bush said. “A lot of the water is moving out pretty rapidly, which is great. What we’re seeing is a transition from search and rescue to evacuations.”

In most communities, floodwaters had stabilized or were inching back toward the gulf. In Delcambre, the receding flood gave back a half-mile stretch of cane fields and sodden houses. Yet at dusk, much of the town remained submerged.

Delcambre had the look of a medieval hamlet humbled by a siege. The body of a black horse was folded over a chain-link fence. A cow floated in someone’s yard, skin stretched tight over a bloated belly. Dozens of spooked horses that survived the flooding galloped through town while farmers rushed after them, trying to catch the animals before they drank the brackish seawater.

Toby Vinet, 40, had watched water roll up his driveway Saturday before he tried to walk out into the surge, water up to his chest. He made it out, crediting his survival -- and the town’s -- to the area’s Cajun heritage.

“You got to figure -- they kicked us out of Nova Scotia, ran us down here, and 100 years later, we’re still here.”

As the sun set, Mary Viator and her husband, Mike, took a stomach-turning boat ride to survey the double-wide where they had lived for two years. She gasped as the airboat passed familiar houses half-sunk in the tide, aluminum siding peeled off and paint curling into ribbons.

“This looks like a lake. It looks like it’s supposed to be here. Isn’t it weird?” she said.

The Viators’ house, it turned out, was one of the few that escaped flooding. Clean laundry hung in the laundry room, and the last dishes had dried beside the sink.

Viator walked around the house, amazed, unsure what to do with the five minutes she had in her home. She took a toothbrush and one of her daughter’s favorite games, and tied them in a plastic bag. Then she locked the door behind her.

In Terrebonne Parish, a coastal region southwest of New Orleans, search teams transported more than 4,000 residents to shelters after they were caught by an 8-foot storm surge driven from the southeast by Rita’s harsh winds. Parish officials were concerned about scores of people holding out in their homes Sunday, but rescuers who checked on the die-hards found them insistent on waiting out the ebbing tide.

“We got hit pretty bad, but everybody got out that wanted to get out,” said Mike DeRoche, parish emergency preparedness director, whose home in Houma was threatened. “We got some people left, but they’re in no hurry to leave. I guess we got some pretty hard-headed folks down here.”

DeRoche said many of the parish’s 106,000 residents had evacuated before the hurricane struck. Cane farmers and shellfish netters “don’t scare easy,” he said. But televised images of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction took many aback. Those fears were stoked by the tales told by 5,000 Katrina evacuees who had moved in with relatives and friends in the parish.

As Rita blew in, tides rose in Lake Boudreaux and in Bayou Grande, and the water rushing in from the two waterways trapped the parish’s bottomlands. More than 6,000 homes were flooded.

“We got ourselves a double whammy,” DeRoche said.

Deputies and firefighters brought out the first wave of evacuees on powerboats tied up at the local sheriff’s office. But within two hours, National Guard troops added to the small flotilla of rescue boats, and Coast Guard helicopters were darting over rooftops, reeling up residents on mechanical slings.

“If that water had come up much faster, we would have been in trouble for sure,” DeRoche said.

In neighboring Larose, Ryan Naquin, 28, was stranded with his extended family on their front porch, which turned into a fishing dock as the dark-green waters of Bayou Blue crested near the steps. “The water just came up too fast.”

Naquin and his brother Trent, who hunt alligators here, ferried half a dozen relatives by motorboat to higher ground. They had spent much of the day on the porch, watching currents rise.

“It’s never been this high,” said Trent Naquin, 25, who lost a second job as a snapper fisherman when Hurricane Katrina wrecked his commercial boat.

Larose’s evacuees slept on mattresses on the floor of a municipal gym. About 140 people had crowded into the shelter Saturday, but about half of them left Sunday as the waters flowed back into the bayous.

“We’ll go home as soon as possible, but we’ll watch the levees,” said Charlie Callais, 66, who evacuated with his wife, Sylvasia, 54.

To the north, in New Orleans, floodwaters that overtopped the Industrial Canal levee stretched through the Lower 9th Ward, and localized flooding swamped Jefferson, Plaquemines, Orleans and St. Tammany parishes. The Army Corps of Engineers began pumping out the water in the north of the city, where 12 to 18 inches of water stood in some neighborhoods. And the corps continued to fly in massive sandbags to bolster the weakened levees along the Industrial Canal.

Col. Duane Gapinski, who is overseeing the project, said the corps expected to have the northern area around the 17th Street and London Avenue canals dry in about a week, the Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish dry by next week, and Plaquemines Parish dry in three to four weeks. “It’s an unwinnable battle,” Gapinski said. “I’m in charge of unwatering, but Mother Nature is in charge of watering.”

Nearly 1 million residents in Louisiana and Texas remained in darkness Sunday night. Utility company officials restored power to 144,000 customers in Louisiana, said Bill Doran of the Office of Emergency Preparedness. Doran said crews would get a better assessment of damage after troops completed searches and rescues, but that early air surveys were not encouraging. “It looks pretty bad,” Doran said.

Across the Sabine River, which runs along the Louisiana-Texas line, there was less evidence of heavy damage from storm surge. One of the towns hit hardest by the incoming tides was Sabine Pass, which struggled with a 6-foot surge that dragged boats, fuel tanks and oil machinery through its streets. By early afternoon, much of town was still awash at low tide.

Even on the main route through town, South Gulfport Highway, there was at least 3 inches of standing water. Searchers slowly made their way through the town, knocking on doors in search of people who had ridden out the storm.

Only one man had stayed behind in the face of the mandatory evacuation. Amos Dondee, 77, settled in the attic of Boot Scoot Bar, a one-story building one block from the gulf on Quinn Street.

“I’ve been through this before. This place floods all the time,” paramedic Brian Bowling said that Dondee had told him. Rescuers found Dondee waiting in the dark, covered with mud, but unbowed.

Most of East Texas’ coastal towns contended more with wind damage than with the high tides that claimed Louisiana’s coast. In Port Arthur and Beaumont, debris and downed trees lay on almost every street. Streetlights dangled from wires, sagging over the blacktop. Roofs were gone on many buildings, and highway underpasses were blocked by water.

The region’s petrochemical plants appeared to have suffered minimal damage, despite some flooding and collapsed refinery towers, officials said.

“As bad as it could have been, we came out of this in pretty good shape,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said after taking a helicopter tour Sunday.

In Houston, only lightly bruised by the storm, gas stations were struggling to replenish their depleted fuel stocks as evacuated residents began returning under a staggered plan phased in by city officials.

Houston Mayor Bill White said the phased return looked as if it was working: “Look, if you’re going to have millions of vehicles going on the highways, am I going to predict no traffic jam in next three days? Obviously not. There will be a bunch of vehicles moving, and all it takes is one stalled or wrecked vehicle to create a backup.”

He insisted that last week’s epic traffic backup that stalled 2.7 million evacuees arose from “an extraordinary storm under extraordinary circumstances.” He added, “We will look back and try to do it better the next time.”

*

Barry reported from Delcambre, La.; Pringle from Larose, La.; and Huffstutter from Sabine Pass, Texas. Also contributing were Times staff writers Stephen Braun in Washington; Mai Tran in Baton Rouge, La.; Ann M. Simmons in Forked Island, La.; and Nicole Gaouette in New Orleans. Times researcher Lianne Hart in Houston also contributed.


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