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Rescuers fan out along flooded Louisiana coast

ERATH, La.—They kept coming.

By airboat, helicopter, truck and even tractor, the stranded victims of Hurricane Rita were brought to safety by an army of rescue workers and volunteers who spent Sunday cruising the flooded communities of coastal southwestern Louisiana.

"There's no way to keep count," said David Abshire, 50, a deputy in the Vermilion Parish Sheriff's Department Reserve. "Every time you turn around, there was another truckload of people."

Estimates of the number of people rescued since efforts began on Saturday climbed above 1,000 as the day wore on, said Maj. Darryl LeBlanc of the Vermilion Parish sheriff's office. Solid numbers were elusive, as official rescue efforts were augmented by friends, neighbors and others who went in on their own.

As of Sunday morning, close to 18,000 National Guard troops and air personnel were being deployed from Louisiana and other states, said Maj. Ed Bush of the National Guard. They'd already conducted 93 rescue missions before noon.

There were no confirmed fatalities, but a number of the missing still hadn't been found by late afternoon.

Abshire said that no one had expected such flooding in the area, which is 15 to 20 miles from the coast.

"This was a fluke; nobody ever thought we'd flood this bad this high up," said Abshire, whose team picked up about 20 people on Sunday.

Rescue efforts, suspended Saturday night, resumed at daybreak along a necklace of small towns throughout the southern parish of Vermilion. Crews navigated the cocoa-colored waters, and by mid-afternoon, Vermilion Parish officials asked the owners of air-, flat-bottom and shallow draft boats to help rescue people who were still stranded on the second floors of homes.

Vermilion Parish Sheriff Michael Couvillon, who lost 80 cows, four horses and four tractors to Hurricane Rita, said that rescuers were slowly making their way down a list of 100 addresses of people who didn't heed evacuation orders.

Among those who were rescued on Sunday was a Vietnamese family who rode out the storm on their shrimp boat in Intercoastal City. Many of the stranded people used cell phones to call for help, then alerted rescuers to neighbors who also needed assistance.

Reports of the missing continued late Sunday, including a blind man who was last seen hanging onto a log near his home in Esther.

As the rescues continued, some tried to return home.

Residents of Erath—a farming community of 2,500—returned in borrowed boats and thigh-high waders. Much of the town, with two stoplights and one grocery store, was under water, swamped by a 15-foot tidal surge that pushed 35 miles inland.

"Lake Erath. That's what I call our town. It's looks like a lake with houses and white-capped waves," said resident Tammy Colomb.

Dozens of families began trickling back into Forked Island, a small town of cattlemen, sportsmen and rice and crawfish farmers in Vermilion Parish in the Acadiana section of central Louisiana.

Almost every house was flooded, some to depths of 3 or 4 feet. Swamped cars oozing oil stood in driveways. Cattle, horses, dogs and cats huddled on any dry spot or high ground.

"This was horrible," said Tawana Vaughn, who lives in the nearby town of Kaplan and had driven to the outskirts of Forked Island to check on family members there.

Search crews using flat-bottom and airboats began searching the town on Sunday. Only about 20 to 30 people remained in the town to weather the storm.

"I'm glad to see that almost everyone did the smart thing and got the hell out," said rescue worker Eric Demint.

Donna and Tommy Lege wanted to see their house on Sunday, so they did what many other residents of flooded Erath did—hopped in a boat and took off down the main street, covered in about 3 feet of water.

With military rescue helicopters whirring overhead and troops searching house-to-house, they didn't know what to expect.

"I'm going to be sick when I go in there," Donna Lege said as they pulled up to their house.

"I told you to prepare yourself," her husband replied.

Inside, they found that the oil-slicked floodwaters had covered everything, even ruining two bins of videotapes that Tommy had taken of their children.

As some surveyed what they lost, others waited to be found.

Sgt. Marcus Abshire of the Vermilion Parish sheriff's office grew up in an area called Big Woods, south of Abbeville. The 28-year-old has been working to rescue people in an airboat. On Saturday, he picked up a family of five in Forked Island who were trapped in their home.

"The hardest part about this is that everybody knows everybody around here," he said. "It's hard to see your family's house under water, your friend's house under water. A lot of times, you can't do nothing."

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(Burch of The Miami Herald reported from Erath, Tran of the Grand Forks Herald from Abbeville and Sneed of The (San Luis Obispo, Calif.) Tribune from Forked Island. Eric Frazier of The Charlotte Observer contributed from Erath and Alex Friedrich of the St. Paul Pioneer Press contributed from Baton Rouge.)

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

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

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