Texans are slowly making their way back to Houston, Galveston and other coastal cities to begin the long process of cleaning up after Hurricane Rita hit on Saturday morning.
Rita, which at one point was one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record (see "Hurricane Rita Could Cause More Damage Than Katrina"), quickly dropped to a Category 1 after making landfall, then to a tropical storm, but not before sending floodwaters back into New Orleans and inundating coastal Louisiana towns such as Lake Charles.
Unlike the chaotic flight from the Texas coast late last week that resulted in a nearly 100-mile backup on Interstate 45, the traffic was flowing freely Monday morning (September 26) as some of the 3 million residents who fled from Rita came home to assess the damage.
Despite fears that Rita would create the kind of devastation in coastal Texas that Katrina did in New Orleans less than a month ago, many towns suffered slight flood and wind damage, but were not as hard hit as many had predicted, a situation Texas Governor Rick Perry called "miraculous."
"As bad as it could have been, we came out of this in pretty good shape," he said.
At press time, other than the 23 deaths from a bus full of seniors that caught fire on the highway while trying to flee the storm, the death toll from Rita appears to be low. The two other known deaths are of a man whose mobile home was smashed by a tornado in Mississippi and one who was hit by a falling tree in Texas. The relatively low death toll so far contrasts with the more than 1,000 deaths caused by Katrina.
By Monday, people were jogging on the streets of Houston, supermarkets were filled with shoppers, and the airport and many business had reopened. Schools are expected to reopen on Wednesday, according to the Houston Chronicle. More than 200,000 residents still didn't have power as of Sunday night, but the dozens of chemical plants and refineries that supply a quarter of the nation's gasoline sustained only minor damage, easing fears of $5-per-gallon gasoline had they been wiped out as expected.
While Houston was spared the brunt of the storm, the 2 1/2-mile-long earthen Lake Livingston dam — which provides drinking water for the city — was seriously damaged. The Chronicle reported that the huge boulders that protect the dam were tossed off by Rita's 117-mph winds, leaving 60 percent of the dam exposed.
Despite fears that Rita would stall out over the area and dump as much as 25 inches of rain, the storm moved on quickly and its remnants were bringing rain to the upper Midwest by Monday.
But, for the second time in a month, New Orleans was underwater, though not as much as was dumped in by Katrina. Levees again were breached (see "Hurricane Rita Slows Down, But New Orleans Floods Again") — most seriously in the Industrial Canal, flooding the city's low-income Lower Ninth Ward — sending several feet of water into the just dried-out city. Confident officials said New Orleans could be pumped dry within a week and Mayor Ray Nagin expected some residents to be able to return to the drier areas later this week.
Most seriously affected were the Louisiana parishes of Cameron and Vermilion, which were hit with storm surges of up to 15 feet, leaving popular vacation towns like Holly Beach flooded and wiped off the map.
Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco said there was hardly anything left in Cameron. "Everything is just obliterated," she said after a weekend flyover to assess damage. The governor said she'd ask the federal government for $31.7 billion to help rebuild the state's damaged infrastructure. To the east, New Orleans' Times-Picayune reported that 40 percent of Terrebonne Parish was underwater and up to 25,000 people have been displaced, with more than 10,000 homes and businesses suffering serious flood damage.
Over the weekend, President Bush — who was stung by criticism over the government's slow response to Katrina — was more visibly engaged in monitoring Rita. He suggested that when the nation is hit by natural disasters of a "certain size" that Congress should consider having the military take the lead in responding, rather than the Department of Homeland Security and the embattled Federal Emergency Management Agency.
To find out what you can do to help provide relief to victims of Katrina, head to think MTV's hurricane relief page.