Rita rescuers looking for people, cattle - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

Rita rescuers looking for people, cattle

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Posted: Monday, September 26, 2005 12:15 pm | Updated: 8:00 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

BEAUMONT, Texas - Rescuers used skiffs to take flooded-out residents to safety along the hurricane-stricken Texas-Louisiana coast Monday, and the Army sent out Blackhawk helicopters to find thousands of cattle feared trapped in high water.

Hurricane Rita's death toll climbed to seven when the bodies of five people were discovered in a Beaumont apartment.

The five - a man, a woman and three children - apparently were overcome by carbon monoxide from a generator they were using after the hurricane knocked out the electricity over the weekend, authorities said. The children's aunt discovered the bodies after going to check on the group.

Rita roared ashore Saturday morning, slamming the refinery towns of Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas, as well as Lake Charles, La., after an epic evacuation that emptied out a large swath of coastline and saved countless lives. Some 3 million people fled from Rita's path after seeing what Katrina did to New Orleans a month ago.

As of Sunday night, only two deaths had been blamed directly on Rita.

"As bad as it could have been, we came out of this in pretty good shape," said Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who called the absence of widespread fatalities "miraculous."

Hard-hit towns along the Texas-Louisiana coast began to pick up the pieces Monday: Rescuers pushed their way into once-inaccessible neighborhoods as the floodwaters dropped. Crews worked to clear roads of fallen trees so that utility workers could restore power to hundreds of thousands of people. Authorities began tallying the damage to rice and sugar cane fields, shrimp boats, refineries and ranches.

The Army used helicopters to search for stranded cattle in flooded-out southern Louisiana amid reports that more than 4,000 may have been killed.

"The big thing now is the focus on keeping the cattle alive," said Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, commander of the military task force handling Katrina's aftermath.

Rita flattened towns and swamped fields in Cameron and Vermilion parishes, just east of the Texas line. Scores of cattle were seen swimming in the brown floodwaters. Ranchers on horseback herded cattle into truck-drawn corrals.

"Take all the coastal parishes, they all had cattle," said Bob Felknor, spokesman for the Louisiana Cattlemen's Association. "My guess is we could be looking at least 15,000. It could be more than 30,000 in trouble."

Elsewhere, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he asked the military to set up temporary medical facilities at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston because Houston's hospitals have been overwhelmed with patients evacuated from outlying counties and are "at the breaking point."

"I think people expected that they could go to Houston because it has a world-famous medical center, but it's at capacity and they've had to shut down some facilities," he said.

The more than 110,000 people living in Beaumont were urged not to return home, though, since water, electricity and sewer services will not be restored for weeks. Police blocked exits off interstate highways leading to the city.

In Lake Charles, National Guardsmen patrolled the town and handed out bottled water, ice and food to hundreds of people left without power. Scores of cars wrapped around the parking lot of the city civic center.

Dorothy Anderson said she did not have time to get groceries before the storm because she was at a funeral out of town. "We got back and everything was closed," she said.

Mike Deroche, director of the Terrebonne Parish, La., Office of Emergency Preparedness, said that the floodwaters were going down in most areas and that the parish had nearly 9,900 homes that were severely damaged.

"We're just starting to get back into some areas that we haven't been able to get to," Deroche said.

In Chauvin, a steady stream of people were brought by small boats from the flooded sections of Terrebonne Parish. Some cried as they hauled plastic bags filled with their possessions out of the skiffs that carried them to dry land.

Others cursed.

"This is the worst thing I've ever been through," said Danny Hunter, 56. "I called FEMA this morning, and they said they couldn't help us because this hasn't been declared a disaster area."

"Texas is a disaster area!" Jenny Reading shouted. "I guess the president made sure of that, and everyone just forgot about us."

Robert LeBlanc, director of the Vermilion Parish, La., Office of Emergency Preparedness, said that in addition to stranding thousands of cattle, the storm wiped out hunting camps that bring in tourists, and hurled shrimp boats up onto land.

Authorities had trouble keeping people from southern Louisiana from traveling through floodwaters in their own boats to discover whether Rita wrecked their homes and livelihoods. Hundreds returned to save what they could and begin rebuilding.

"Knowing these people, most of them are hunters, trappers, farmers, they're not going to wait on FEMA or anyone else," LeBlanc said. "They're going to do what they need to do. They're used to primitive conditions."

Some of those who returned found floodwaters up to the rooftops, coffins and refrigerators bobbing in the water, and stilts where their houses once stood.

"I've been through quite a few of them, and we've never had water like this," said L.E. Nix, whose home on the edge of a bayou in Louisiana's Calcasieu Parish was swamped with 3 feet of water. "I had a little piece of paradise, and now I guess it's gone."

Yet it was clear that the misery wrought by Rita was not as bad as what Katrina inflicted.

Authorities said at least 16 Texas oil refineries remained shut down. But overall the Gulf Coast petrochemical installations that supply a quarter of the nation's gasoline suffered only a glancing blow, with just one major plant facing weeks of repairs.

Randy Roach, mayor of Lake Charles, told CBS's "The Early Show" his hard-hit seaport city of oil refineries and casinos would bounce back.

"The good news is that the water is going down, it's kind of back in the banks of the lake and our recovery process is well under way," he said. "The response has been tremendous. I really appreciate everything that the federal government has done to help us."

In Houston, which was spared the brunt of Rita, officials set up a voluntary, staggered plan for an "orderly migration," with different areas going home Sunday, Monday and Tuesday to avoid the monumental gridlock that accompanied the exodus last week.

Among the deaths attributed to Rita was a person killed in Mississippi when a tornado spawned by the hurricane overturned a mobile home, and an east Texas man struck by a falling tree. Two dozen evacuees were killed before the storm hit in a bus fire near Dallas.

In New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin immediately resumed his plan to allow some residents to return to drier parts of the city, throwing open Algiers, a largely unscathed neighborhood across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter.

The Army Corps of Engineers used rocks and sandbags to try to plug the levee that failed during Rita and swamped the already-devastated Ninth Ward. Workers believe that once the breaches are closed, the Ninth Ward can be pumped dry in a week.

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