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Despite extensive damage, Rita's death toll remains low

ABBEVILLE, La.—Rescue and repair—and relief—were the orders of the day Sunday as crews searched by boat and helicopter for people who were trapped in splintered coastal communities while Hurricane Rita's human toll remained remarkably low.

Hundreds were rescued in Louisiana's low-lying, thoroughly devastated Vermilion Parish alone.

"Everything is just obliterated," Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said after a helicopter tour of fishing and vacation communities shattered by Rita's 120-mph wind and 15-foot storm surge.

Thanks largely to the evacuation of nearly 3 million people and in contrast to the ghastly toll of Hurricane Katrina, only two deaths were directly attributed to Rita.

Twenty-four people also died when a bus carrying them inland caught fire Friday, however, and some people still were missing in the marshy Louisiana lowlands.

"As bad as it could have been, we came out of this in pretty good shape," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said.

Trying to avoid a post-storm tragedy, President Bush pleaded with evacuees to remain where they were until roads were clear, gasoline was available, power was restored and medical services were in place.

"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."

He also said he'd been considering a plan under which the Defense Department would control comprehensive rescue and relief efforts after natural disasters or terrorist attacks "of a certain size."

Texas officials added their voices to the chorus of pleas and stationed police officers at strategic checkpoints along Interstate 10 to prevent evacuees yearning to return home from even getting on the highway. Other roads were blocked or narrowed by storm debris, but most traffic flowed smoothly.

"Stay where you are," Houston Mayor Bill White said.

The metropolitan area usually is home to more than 5 million people. It showed signs of returning to normal Sunday, but remained afflicted by power outages.

"This is still a dangerous place here," White said.

The Lone Star State survived Rita in pretty good shape, though there were exceptions, especially for those in extreme eastern Texas and downstream of the Livingston Dam, which was overburdened by water and damaged by the storm.

Hundreds of homes along the Trinity River were destined to be flooded this week as officials ordered wide-scale evacuations and an unprecedented release of water from Lake Livingston.

Louisiana again endured the worst of it, in remote coastal regions and in star-crossed New Orleans, where Rita-generated floods began receding. The Army Corps of Engineers hoped to pump out the city's floodwaters within a week, and some residents might return to dry neighborhoods Monday.

Forty percent of the city's pumping stations were back in operation, and 50 portable pumps were moved in, but 4 feet of water still stood in the Lower Ninth Ward and 7 feet plagued Plaquemines Parish, southeast of New Orleans.

Along the coast, more calls for help arrived from Vermilion Parish and Cameron Parish, where homes simply vanished, with only their concrete slabs remaining.

More than 1,000 people were rescued from Vermilion Parish during the weekend, authorities said, and others were plucked to safety in other western Louisiana parishes.

"You can't tell where the Gulf (of Mexico) starts and ends," Blanco said. "There's water as far as the eye can see."

Inland, the town of Lake Charles lost every major electrical transmission line, and power may not be fully restored for weeks, said Norman Bourdeau, the operations manager for the Calcasieu Parish office of emergency preparedness.

Drinking water won't be available for two days or more, and the town was closed to returning citizens for at least that long. The 18,000 people who remained in the city were under a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.

Rita's rainy remnants swept through the Mississippi River valley Sunday, provoking flash-flood alerts in seven states. Forecasters said the system moved faster than expected and that the threat of catastrophic inland flooding had diminished.

That showed the difference a single day can make in the impact of a tropical weather system.

Those who were directly under and to the east of Rita's core, which made landfall early Saturday on the Texas-Louisiana border, dealt with severely damaged homes, deep floods and forests of downed pine, oak and hardwood trees that blocked roads.

Near Beaumont, a Texas refinery town that sat right under Rita's core, Rose Barrett, 44, rode out the storm with her mother, Maria Barrett, 81, in an apartment complex that sustained heavy roof and exterior damage.

"I thought we were going to die," Rose Barrett said. "I thought Rita was knocking on the door trying to get in, and I was leaning on the other side of the door, trying to keep her out. About 3 in the morning, I felt like God showed up and pushed Rita away."

She and others expressed impatience: Where is that state and federal help they heard so much about?

"It just doesn't seem organized enough to me," said Dave Keenan, 73, a lifelong resident of Beaumont. "I think their intentions are good, but it doesn't seem like a whole lot's going on."

Relief officials said some measure of patience was required.

Closer to the coast in Port Arthur, Texas, police Officer Randy Moyer escorted several carloads of officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on an assessment tour.

"We're doing the best we can," Moyer said.

In other developments:

_ExxonMobil said its refinery in Beaumont, which has a capacity of 348,000 barrels per day, escaped serious damage. It reopened its Baytown refinery, the largest in the nation, and stored gasoline moved through pipelines.

Colonial Pipeline Co., which operates the nation's biggest pipeline network to the Southeast and East Coast, said it was restarting its origin points in Houston and Pasadena, Texas.

Offshore oil and natural-gas drillers sent aircraft out on inspection missions. Virtually all offshore oil production—more than 1.5 million barrels a day—has ceased since Thursday.

_The president's top economic adviser, Ben Bernanke, said in a speech to bankers that despite damages from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, "I remain pretty optimistic about the economy."

_Eqecat Inc., a risk-modeling company in Oakland, Calif., said insured losses from Rita's wind damages should fall between $3 billion and $6 billion, well below industry projections before landfall. Flood damage could add billions more.

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(Tran of the Grand Folks Herald reported from Abbeville, Hanna of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported from Port Arthur and Merzer of The Miami Herald reported from Washington.

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(Contributing to this report were Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Tony Spangler of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Liberty, Texas; John Cheves of the Lexington Herald-Leader in Shreveport, La.; Katherine Corcoran of the San Jose Mercury News in Lake Charles, La.; Alex Friedrich of the St. Paul Pioneer Press in Baton Rouge, La.; Nicholas Spangler of The Miami Herald in New Orleans; and Seth Borenstein and Kevin G. Hall in Washington.)

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

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050925 RITA damage

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