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Rita leaves widespread damage, flooding in Lake Charles, La.

LAKE CHARLES, La.—Lake Charles 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, looking for residents in homes demolished by Hurricane Rita, but high winds and heavy squalls late into the day hampered their efforts.

The rescue teams brought out about 50 people. No deaths or injuries were immediately reported.

The damage, however, 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.

Minor flooding was reported at an evacuated hospital. 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.

In residential neighborhoods, fallen oaks and pines made many streets impassable.

Downtown, dozens of businesses lost windows and parts of roofs. Floodwaters covered the boardwalk and parking lot of the Harrah's Casino & Hotel. Water also appeared to be flowing into the first floor of the building.

Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore surveyed the damage and met with state and local officials.

Some officials estimated that more than 90 percent of the city's 70,000-plus residents had evacuated.

Mary Martin Rothermel was one who did not. She spent the storm in the brick building that houses the parish office of St. Margaret Catholic Church.

Riding out the storm, she said, "was like listening to Satan having a fit for 12 hours."

Larry North, a security guard at Memorial Hospital, stayed at his post at the only hospital that remained open in the city. On Saturday, when he went home to check on his property, he found that two trees had fallen on his house.

"I lost my home," he said. "I don't have a box of matches."


(Corcoran reports for the San Jose Mercury News. Malcolm Garcia of The Kansas City Star contributed to this report.)


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

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

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