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Rescuers save hundreds in flooded communities across La. coast

ABBEVILLE, La.—Rescue workers Saturday saved hundreds of people trapped by rising floodwaters driven by Hurricane Rita.

Helicopters, airboats, buses and trucks carried residents out of communities all along the Louisiana coast, from rural areas near the Texas border to towns near New Orleans that had been largely spared by Hurricane Katrina. Crews searched for the stranded in Lake Charles, a western Louisiana city hammered by the storm.

Some people were still missing and others were still trapped Saturday night. Rescue workers knew Sunday could reveal more problems.

Clifford Fibije left his home in Esther on Friday. He said he tried to convince his brothers—one of whom is blind—to come, but they waited in the small Vermilion Parish community.

"My oldest brother called me and said that someone was coming to rescue them," Fibije said. Then Fibije learned the boat had sunk.

As evening approached, there was no word from either brother.

"I'm really scared," Fibije said. "If they can't find them in the daytime, how are they going to find them at night?"

South of Lafayette, the entire town of Erath, population 2,100, was under 4 to 5 feet of water, rescue worker Ronald Broussard said. And half the residents didn't evacuate, he said.

Volunteers in about 25 boats were ferrying people from their homes to a staging area along a highway. Rescuers also used a farmer's tractor and a helicopter.

Authorities sent in school buses to pick up people.

The town is only 6.5 feet above sea level, Broussard said. On Saturday, it was caught between the storm surge from the south and rainwater draining from the north. For a time, water was rising about a foot an hour, he said, and was expected to keep climbing into the night.

Volunteers brought boats to a command center in Abbeville, where state officials coordinated a search and rescue operation that was expected to continue throughout Sunday. Officials said about 300 people had been rescued by early evening in Vermilion Parish, with operations continuing.

In some parishes south of New Orleans, levees were breached, leading to a new round of flooding and the emergency evacuation of several hundred people.

Rita's storm surge sent water pouring into parts of two cities south of New Orleans—neither of which had been seriously flooded by Katrina. Residents who'd evacuated for that hurricane and returned to dry homes stayed this time—and had to be rescued.

"Thank God for those airboats, I tell you," said Charles Calzada as he loaded his two dogs into a nephew's car Saturday. The family wasn't allowed to stay with their dogs in a Red Cross shelter hastily set up in a Westwego junior high school for Barataria and Lafitte residents, so they headed elsewhere.

The floodwaters "started coming up yesterday morning, but it was really slow," Pamela Calzada said. "We thought we were fine, but by 3 this morning, my cedar chest was floating."

There were more problems in Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans.

It had taken almost a month to pump out parts of the parish, which is bisected by the mouth of the Mississippi River. Before Rita, power was slowly being restored, and people were coming back and talking about rebuilding.

But Rita erased much of that progress. Part of Myrtle Grove and communities from Port Sulphur to Buras were under water that was inching higher by the hour Saturday.

Rescue efforts were under way in inland communities as well. About 50 people were taken from flooded areas in Lake Charles, according to rescue workers. Several people were pulled from the second floor of a hotel, where they were trapped.

The city was a mangled ghost town Saturday, with power poles and trees snapped, roofs blown off, buildings collapsed and a white-capped Lake Charles spilling into downtown streets.

Fire and rescue workers who had evacuated to nearby towns weren't able to return until about noon. They immediately began search and rescue missions, but their efforts were hampered by high winds and heavy squalls.

Damage stretched across the city. A building collapsed at the airport, winds tore the roof off a community college building and tossed it onto the street, and surging waters ripped barges from their moorings and slammed them into a 2,500-foot-long high-rise bridge on Interstate 10, damaging it.

Officials said water was still rising in parts of the city Saturday afternoon, and they estimated that about 35 percent of the city's residential areas were flooded.

Authorities asked residents not to return to Lake Charles for at least two days, and roadblocks encircled the city, manned by National Guard and state highway patrol officers.

"We don't want to have to rescue new people who are now going into the area to look around," said U.S. Air Force Lt. Michael Odle.

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(Audra Burch of the Miami Herald reported from Abbeville, with contributions from Tu-Uyen Tran of the Grand Forks Herald and David Sneed of the San Luis Obispo Tribune. Nicholas Spangler of the Miami Herald reported from Plaquemines Parish. Katherine Corcoran of the San Jose Mercury News reported from Lake Charles, with contributions from Malcolm Garcia of The Kansas City Star. Alex Friedrich of the St. Paul Pioneer Press contributed from Baton Rouge, and Susannah Nesmith of the Miami Herald contributed from Jefferson Parish.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-STORMS-LAKECHARLES

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