Nagin updates the state of the city

Saturday, 8:31 p.m.

From New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's press office:

Mayor Ray Nagin said Saturday that New Orleans will move ahead with rebuilding and cleanup after Hurricane Rita, which caused the Lower 9th Ward to re-flood. Water is between 4-12 feet in that area because of seepage from the Industrial Canal.

Nagin said that temporary fixes on the 17th Street and London
Avenue Canals appear to be holding. The sheets used to repair breaches
can be removed once water levels drop, possibly in six to eight hours.
Pumping in those areas will then be resumed.

Most parts of the city are dry, though 12-18 inches of rainwater is
standing in some areas, with localized flooding of up to 24 inches.

Some electrical outages occurred in Algiers and Uptown, where power
had been restored after Hurricane Katrina. The sewer system was
apparently unaffected by Rita.

Officials will continue to monitor levees and may proceed with
re-entry as early as Monday, September 26, 2005.

“We want to bring New Orleans back. Rita set us back about three to
five days, but we are very much on schedule,” Mayor Nagin said. “We will
begin the re-entry plan with business owners and residents of Algiers.
Then we will stop, assess our progress, and move on to the previously
targeted zip codes.”

New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Eddie Compass said
security in the city is intact. There have been no arrests for two days.

Levee updates

Saturday, 8:24 p.m.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave this update on the state of New Orleans area levees Saturday night:

• Hurricane Rita storm surge overtopped the Industrial Canal on both the east and west sides of the canal.

• Water overtopped the east side of Industrial Canal into the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans. This overtopping occurred at the two repair sites made to the flood protection system after Hurricane Katrina. The expedient repairs were constructed using both 200-pound rocks and smaller aggregate. The overtopping has removed smaller rock, but the 200-pound rock is holding.

• The temporary repairs made on the east side of the canal after Hurricane Katrina provided an 8-foot level of protection. Surge from Hurricane Rita resulted in the Industrial Canal rising to nearly 8 feet. Wave action removed loose stone at the top of the expedient repair and water began to wash over the area.

• The west side of Industrial Canal overtopped at an east-west levee just north of Florida Avenue and a North-South floodwall about a half-mile north of that location. Both locations were breached during Hurricane Katrina, but still provided an 8-foot level of protection.

• The areas being flooded at this time were first flooded following that storm. No new areas are being flooded at this time.

• The temporary steel sheet pile closures at the 17th Street and London Avenue canals remain in place. Closures are preventing storm surge from Lake Pontchartrain from entering the canals and overtopping the temporary rock and earthen repairs to the damaged canal walls. Once the lake level equalizes, the Corps will remove the sheetpile and restore pumping.

• It was impractical to close off the Industrial Canal with sheetpile as was done at the outlets to the 17th Street and London Avenue Canals because it is too big.

• The Corps is coordinating with local Water and Sewer boards, and water is being pumped out in St. Bernard Parish by Pump Stations 1 and 6, and by Pump Station 19 in Orleans Parish.

• The Corps and its contractors will begin a two-phase operation to stop the water flow beginning as quickly as conditions allow.

• On the west-bank, large rock will be trucked in to fill the scour hole behind the levee. Large 3,000 to 7,000 pound sandbags will be placed atop the levee to stop the water flow and provide additional protection from future storm surge. The sandbags will be covered with crushed stone. The goal is a minimum 10 foot elevation.

• On the eastside, 7,000-pound sandbags will be placed by helicopter. The Corps expects to use up to 2,000 sandbags in this phase of the operation. The goal is a minimum 10 foot elevation.

Blanco wants to create clearing house for help

By Ed Anderson
Capital bureau

BATON ROUGE – Gov. Kathleen Blanco on Saturday said she wants to create a “Louisiana Family Recovery Corps’’ to help victims of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita get almost $2 billion in job training, educational and job-finding services to put them back to work as soon as possible.

“Our people will need help cutting through the red tape,’’ she said.

Blanco called the effort a joint federal-state effort, but Vice Adm. Thad Allen, the chief federal officer coordinating the two hurricanes relief efforts, said he would have to review the proposal and consult with officials in Washington D.C. before endorsing it.

She said she would like to deploy 400 to 500 people to help all Louisiana hurricane victims —in and out of state -- get $1.99 billion in personal and business help.

Blanco Chief of Staff Andy Kopplin said the program’s administrative costs will be about 5 percent of the overall program costs, or about $100 million. He said the $2 billion request is just a small portion of what federal officials are talking about allocating for Katrina victims.

Department of Social Services Secretary Ann Williamson called the proposed program “a cost-efficient means of coordinating the wide-range of services from federal, state, local private and non-profit agencies and organizations.

She said she will contact President Bush to get his blessings – and federal dollars – to get the program running.

“Our folks are getting frustrated’’ in shelters trying to call toll-free numbers and apply for benefits on websites, she said.

Kopplin said the International Rescue Committee, the American Red Cross, Catholic Charities and the Volunteers of America are some of the non-profit groups that likely will be involved.

Kopplin said the budget is based on an average of $5,400 per family. There are about 350,000 families that have been displaced by the two hurricanes, or roughly 1.3 million people, Williamson said.

About $4,100 of the per-family allotment will include job training and job placement in an effort to bring citizens dispersed to other states back home, and to help stimulate the state’s economy, Williamson said.

The proposed budget also includes an average of $1,300 per family for “limited, targeted financial support for displaced citizens to cover costs to fill gaps in available assistance.’’

The money will not take the place of Federal Emergency Management Agency or Red Cross stipends for immediate expenses, but will be in addition to those assistance funds.

Williamson said the number of families participating may increase above the projected 350,000 once the damages to Hurricane Rita are better known.

Blanco will announce the appointment of a senior executive from the private sector “who has significant government and non-profit experience, to lead this effort.’’

Updated state information on Rita

Saturday, 7:22 p.m.

By Ed Anderson
Staff writer

Following Hurricane Rita, National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Pete Schneider said about 4,000 new troops from other parts of the nation have arrived to begin working in hard-hit Vermilion Parish, but the weather has prevented them from moving into Calcasieu and Cameron parishes.

He said the 4,000 are among the 15,000 Gov. Kathleen Blanco had requested earlier in the week. He said Guard officials in Washington are considering sending more troops when it can be determined where they can be best used.

Schneider said there will not be any problem amassing the other 11,000 once commanders on the ground decide how they can be best utilized.

“We are going to be there for a while,’’ Schneider said of the troops’ presence in Vermilion Parish.

Meanwhile, Department of Transportation and Development Assistant Secretary Gordon Nelson said the state will send engineers to inspect the Interstate 10 Calcasieu Bridge over Lake Charles, which was struck during the height of Rita’s fury by two barges.

Nelson said if the weather does not clear, divers will be sent to the area Sunday to inspect the piers of the bridge.

Nelson said the span is closed to traffic until the inspection can be done.

The barges first hit the Isle of Capri Casino riverboat in Lake Charles then ricocheted from it and hit the span, Nelson said.

State Police spokesman Trooper Johnnie Brown said late Saturday that a total of 212 roads were closed “from one side of the state to the other, from Mississippi to Texas.’’

Brown said some were flooded and impassable while others were littered with debris, such as downed power lines and tree limbs.

State officials estimated there were a total of 48,000 people in 339 shelters in the state, including 17,800 evacuees form Rita alone.

Terri Ricks, undersecretary of the Department of Social Services, the agency which oversees sheltering evacuees, said the state opened or expanded the capacities at 49 shelters to care for the Rita evacuees.

Kenner mayor warns of scam artists

Saturday, 5:14 p.m.

Kenner suffered mainly wind damage and spot power outages during
Hurricane Rita, but Kenner Mayor Phil Capitano is warning residents
against another potential threat.

Capitano said a resident told him about a man who has been traveling
the University City subdivision telling residents he works for the city and
is a friend of Capitano's.

The "slick-talking" man told at least one woman that he would guide her
through the insurance process, doing legwork and helping her file her
claim in return for a 10-percent share of her insurance settlement.

"To me, it's criminal," said Capitano, adding that he doesn't know the
man. "I'm going to get to the bottom of it."

New Orleans DA announces layoffs

The Orleans Parish district attorney’s office announced Saturday that, due to Hurricane Katrina it is laying off 54 percent of "non-essential, non-legal staff members." The layoff does not include assistant district attorneys.

A statement from the office said: "We have been advised by city officials that the City of New Orleans is facing a financial hardship and although they are seeking financial assistance, they must downsize and advised that we do the same. As of this date, we have not received our quarterly appropriation from the City of New Orleans. Further layoffs may be required without additional funding."

The statement said the decision to lay off certain employees was based upon the "needs of the office as well as seniority."

“I fully appreciate the fact that this disaster has shattered the lives of my employees and their families. I empathize with them all. The decision to retain and terminate employees was not an easy one, but it was necessary. As the office progresses and additional funds become available, we will reconsider employment status,” Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie J. Jordan, Jr., said in the statement.

Lafitte evacuated

Two days after Jefferson Parish ordered a mandatory evacuation of Jean Lafitte, authorities were forced early Saturday to rescue stranded residents after Hurricane Rita’s winds pushed water up Barataria Bay submerging the shrimping village.

Jefferson Parish sheriff’s deputies and National Guard troops were taking residents who had ignored the evacuation order out of the community by boat and by high water military vehicles to a shelter at Worley Middle School in Westwego, authorities said.

The parish had ordered a mandatory evacuation for its low-lying communities of Lafitte, Crown Point and Barataria on Thursday at 6 p.m. The parish had sent its public transit buses to the communities to transport residents to the shelter.

Lafitte Police Chief Mary Jo Hargis said that most of the residents ignored the evacuation order, thinking that the storm surge from Rita’s southerly winds would not create problems for them.

Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee said he did not know how many people had be rescued, but said the truck he was on at noon carried 20 people and it was the eighth or 10th truckload of residents.

Those being evacuated had personal belongings. A few had pets in their laps.

N.O. area residents still eligible for food stamps

BATON ROUGE -- Residents of Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes may continue to apply for emergency food stamps through Sept. 29, Department of Health and Hospitals officials said Saturday.

They said that residents of the four parishes, as well as Washington Parish, will continue to receive the benefits through the end of October.

So far, the agency has certified 307,000 household for benefits totaling more than $111.4 million.

Officials said the benefits pertain to Hurricane Katrina victims. No estimate of how many Hurricane Rita victims will need assistance, they said.

On another Katrina-related issue, the state Department of Labor has received more than 178,800 Katrina-related claims for unemployment and disaster assistance, state officials said. Of those, 157,937 were certified to be eligible for the aid, they said.

Floodwaters reach some parts of Chalmette

Saturday, 12:17 p.m.

Waters from the Industrial Canal levee breach flowed into some parts of Chalmette, flooding north Buccaneer Villa and other neighborhoods north of Judge Perez Drive with as much as 7 to 8 feet of water, St. Bernard Parish officials said.

Some areas south of Judge Perez Drive had as much as 3 feet of water. In some areas, the flooding extended as far south as St. Bernard Highway.

As of 11:30 a.m., officials said water had advanced eastward to Packenham Dive, but they hoped that ongoing pumping and low tide this afternoon would slow or stop the flow.

At mid-day, the levees along the 40-Arpent Canal were holding and there was no flooding reported east of Packenham Drive, officials said.

Paris Road outside the parish levee system remained flooded, but that water was receding.

No fatalities reported

Even as Rita’s winds were buffeting the state, officials of the state Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said they were not aware of any fatalities.

“Most people chose to heed the governor’s call to evacuate,’’ said Col. Jeff Smith, deputy director of the agency. “Based on very early reports, it looks like we will have extensive flooding and damages. ... There are extensive power outages, too.’’

He said he did not know the extent of the outages.

Gordon Nelson, deputy secretary of operations for the Department of Transportation and Development, said that the Interstate 10 bridge over the Calcasieu River in Lake Charles was struck by barges and had to he be closed.

Nelson said the department will not know the extent of the damage until engineers have had a chance to inspect the high-rise span’s piers.

Smith said based on preliminary information, parts of St. Bernard Parish -- mostly in Arabi and limited sections of Chalmette -- was “under four to five feet of water’’ from Rita-spawned rains, a storm surge and levee problems in the parish.

Terrebonne Parish was battered with rains and high winds and “most of the levees were damaged if not destroyed.’’ He said there was six to eight feet of water in parts of the parish.

Most of Cameron Parish, Smith said, was under water, from depths of two to nine feet, and the city of Lake Charles, the largest city in Calcasieu Parish, had floodwaters were in the city’s downtown area but the depth of the water was not known.

National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Pete Schneider said troops were ready to begin search and rescue missions once the winds and rains in southwest Louisiana subsided.

“We are now fighting on two fronts,’’ Schneider said of the Katrina mop-up in New Orleans and the relief efforts for Rita victims in southwest Louisiana.

He said he expects more National Guard troops will be on the ground in the next day or two but could, not say how many more will be here.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco earlier in the week asked for 15,000 more National Guard forces and 15,000 more active-duty military to help with the aftermath of the two hurricanes.

State police spokesman Trooper Johnnie Brown said more than 50 roads have been closed in coastal south Louisiana, stretching form Slidell to southwest Louisiana.

Causeway reopens

Saturday, 11:41 a.m.

The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway has reopened to north and south-bound traffic. The bridge linking St. Tammany and Jefferson parishes reopened at 11 a.m.

Corps hopes to plug levee breaches today

Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Dan Hitchings said crews were expected to drop sandbags into place by helicopter Saturday to slow the flooding of the Lower Ninth Ward caused by two breaches along the banks of the Industrial Canal.

Hitchings said there were two breaches on the east bank of the canal, one about 100 feet long another about 40 feet long, that dumped and estimated four to five feet of water into the area.

Hitchings said that there were four areas on the west bank of the Industrial Canal which caused flooding in the Upper Ninth Ward.

He said with pumps in Orleans Parish working at about 40 percent capacity, it will take “a couple of days’’ to drain the Ninth Ward.

Hitchings said it will probably take most of Saturday for the sandbags to be positioned on the east side of the canal. By Sunday, he said, workers will start sand bagging the west side of the canal.

The good news, Hitchings said, was that there was no breach or overtopping of the repairs made to the 17th Street Canal and the London Avenue Canal made after Katrina’s visit three weeks ago.

He said there was some “seepage form the London Avenue Canal’’ because of sandbags that were not aligned perfectly and allowed some water to flow through.

-- Ed Anderson, Capital Bureau

I-10 ramp in LaPlace impassable

Saturday, 11:02 a.m.

Hurricane Rita left several signs of her presence in the River Parishes early Saturday morning.

Tree branches sporadically laid along Airline Highway. A portion of a large tree blocked a stretch of the highway near the oil refineries in Norco.

In LaPlace, the entrance ramp to I-10 westbound at U.S. 51 was covered with water, making it impassable.

FEMA to hand out rental assistance

By Robert Travis Scott
Capital bureau

BATON ROUGE -- Launching a new program to provide temporary living assistance and to clear shelters nationwide of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina, the federal government in the next few days will begin making lump-sum payments of $2,358 toward three-months rent for each qualified evacuee who obtains housing anywhere in the country.

The news Friday took Gov. Kathleen Blanco by surprise and instantly opened a new rift between her administration and President Bush on the critical issue of how Louisiana will lure back its citizens after the dramatic New Orleans diaspora caused by the storm. It also placed Blanco and Bush at odds over the option of erecting large trailer parks in Louisiana for evacuees.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the lump-sum payments, made by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will cover temporary housing costs for “several hundred thousand” homeowners and renters whose homes were destroyed or are uninhabitable. After the initial lump-sum payment, further assistance will be available for up to 18 months depending on the circumstances, he said.
Low-income evacuees who before the storm received federal housing vouchers through the Department of Housing and Urban Development will continue to get financial support through local public housing authorities wherever they choose to live across the country.

“We’re going to make sure that victims of this disaster, whatever their economic circumstances, get the necessary financial assistance to ensure that they can obtain a temporary residence for the time being,” Chertoff said. “These programs have been designed to give families the maximum amount of flexibility and freedom to decide where they want to relocate and what they want to do over the next few months.

”The issue of interim housing has become one of the most controversial and significant debates on post-Katrina government policy. Federal and state officials want to get evacuees out of shelters and uncomfortable living conditions as soon as possible, but there is disagreement on where to place them until their permanent homes can be restored in the New Orleans area.

The longer evacuees become integrated in places outside Louisiana, state officials contend, the less likely they are to return. If they find some form of housing in the New Orleans area, even temporarily, they can fill jobs and help restart the region’s economy.

Blanco has been pushing for a program to place evacuees in hotels and newly established trailer parks with community services in Louisiana, but she learned of the new federal initiative late Friday morning, just before Chertoff and HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson made the announcement in Washington, D.C.

“The announcement today from HUD and Homeland Security about rental assistance and housing vouchers may certainly address the needs of our friends in Alabama and Mississippi,” Blanco said. “But it does little for Louisiana citizens who want to come home, and we’d like our citizens to be able to come to Louisiana for this interim period.”

The FEMA rent payments will be a further inducement to keep Louisiana citizens out of state because practically speaking few of the payments will be used locally, Blanco said. Hurricane Katrina decimated the housing stock in the New Orleans region, and what was left there and across southern Louisiana has been bought or rented, she said.

“Therefore, with no housing available, vouchers do very little for our evacuees,” Blanco said. “Vouchers don’t give people a way back home to Louisiana.”

Blanco on Friday asked FEMA to accelerate the purchase of blocks of hotel and motel rooms and to “dramatically speed the delivery of trailers for our transitional communities.” These would be supplemented nearby with services for health care, education, child care and transportation.

“The path that I’ve outlined -- moving our people from shelters or the homes of in-laws or friends and into hotels and transitional trailer communities here in Louisiana -- gives our people hope,” Blanco said. “It gives them a clear path that they can see, a path that will help them get their lives together and get them home to Louisiana.”

Trailer and mobile home communities have been slow in coming, partly because of the complicated logistics of finding suitable sites that can handle the temporary villages.

Chertoff said FEMA continues to move forward to establish trailer villages in Louisiana and acknowledged that some towns and parishes want them because of the labor force they will provide. But if people decide to live in a FEMA-supplied trailer or mobile home, Chertoff said, they will not be eligible for the new rent subsidy.

“So it’s not meant to substitute for the trailers, but it’s meant to recognize the fact that as we speak not everybody can or necessarily wants to get into trailers,” Chertoff said.

Establishing trailer villages with economic and social support services will require a complex government effort. Chertoff said the lump-sum payment program will reduce red tape.

Sen. David Vitter said no temporary housing solution is ideal, but the key to getting people back to Louisiana is to develop economic opportunities for them to return. He said he needed to learn more about Blanco’s and FEMA’s proposals to form an opinion on them, but that whatever the solution, he does not want the government to make the evacuees’ lives so uncomfortable that they use their poor conditions as the reason to come back.

FEMA relief programs can provide an evacuee up to $26,200 for the emergency needs of food, shelter, clothing, personal necessities and medical needs. The agency has sought ways to get initial lumps of that cash quickly to the Katrina victims without requiring extensive paperwork and proof of need.

Soon after Katrina, FEMA expedited evacuee checks of $2,000 as an initial emergency payment. Already, more than 747,000 households have qualified for some kind of assistance through FEMA on an immediate basis, and 648,000 of those have received more than $1.5 billion in expedited funds, according to the agency. The new rent program probably will cost about $2 billion for the three-month period, Chertoff said.

To receive the lump-sum payment by check or electronic transfer, evacuees from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana must have registered through FEMA by calling 1-800-621-FEMA or applying on-line at Applicants need to register only once, but should update their registration if their address has changed. The initial payment is calculated based on the national average fair market rent rate for a two-bedroom unit. The payment is portable and may be applied to temporary housing costs “for any location an evacuee determines,” FEMA says.

Eligible households will receive a letter describing specific rules and guidelines on the eligible use of the funds. Eventually, the submission of rental receipts and other documentation will be required.

Chertoff said the lump-sum checks and bank transfers would start flowing this week, but that people should anticipate it will take a few days to receive them. Those evacuees who have registered for direct deposit will get the money sooner, he said.

Staff writer Laura Maggi contributed to this story.

Robert Travis Scott can be reached at 225-342-4197 or

Power outages

Hurricane Rita knocked out power to more than 750,000 households in Louisiana and Texas early Saturday morning, said Chanel Lagarde, spokesman for Entergy.

About 504,000 Entergy customers in Louisiana and 251,000 in Texas lost power because of the storm.

That does not include about 294,000 customers, mostly in Orleans and St. Bernard parishes, who remained without power from Hurricane Katrina.

Severe weather advisories

All of southern Louisiana and southern Mississppi remains under a tornado watch until 5 p.m. today and a flood watch until 4 a.m. Sunday, according to the National Weather Service.

7 a.m. advisory

The 7 a.m. advisory from the National Hurricane Center places Hurricane Rita just north of Beaumont, Texas. Sustain winds remain at 100 mph. The hurricane continues to move to the northwest at 12 mph.

Rita update

BEAUMONT, Texas (AP) - Hurricane Rita plowed into the Gulf Coast early Saturday, lashing Texas and Louisiana with driving rain, flooding low-lying regions, knocking power out to more than half a million people and sparking fires across the region.

Rita made landfall at 3:30 a.m. EDT as a Category 3 storm just east of Sabine Pass, on the Texas-Louisiana line, bringing a 20-foot storm surge and up to 25 inches of rain, the National Hurricane Center said.

Residents in hard-hit western Louisiana called police early Saturday to report roofs being ripped off and downed trees. Rescuers were forced to wait until the winds outside died down to safe levels.
"We can't even get out to check yet," said Sgt. Wendell Carroll of Louisiana's Calcasieu Parish Sheriff's Office. "All we can hear is the wind a' howling."

The storm spun off tornadoes as it churned northwest at 12 mph with winds that topped 120 mph, causing transformers to explode in the pre-dawn darkness.

In Jasper County, north of Beaumont, a house with seven people inside floated in floodwaters after it came off its foundation, said sheriff's communications supervisor Alice Duckworth.

Duckworth said the 30 emergency workers were stuck in the emergency operations center because of flooding. "We can't get any fire trucks out," she said.

Rita spared the flood-prone cities of Houston and Galveston a direct hit. "It looks like the Houston and Galveston area has really lucked out," said Max Mayfield, director of the hurricane center.

But rain from Rita drenched parts of New Orleans on Saturday, straining an already fragile levee system that failed in places on Friday.

The National Weather Service said New Orleans was expected to get spurts of rain dropping 3 to 4 inches per hour. On Friday, hurricane-driven storm surges topped one levee, while another began leaking.

Fires were reported in and around Houston, including one in a two-story apartment building in southeast Houston that left at least eight units damaged, authorities said. Nobody was hurt, according to District Chief Jack Williams. Another blaze broke out before dawn at a shopping complex in Pasadena. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

In a hotel in Beaumont, Texas, near where Rita struck, windows were blown out and shards of glass and pieces of trees were strewn throughout the flooding lobby, KHOU-TV reported.

In Tyler County in eastern Texas, high winds ripped roofs off several buildings, including the police department in Woodville, sheriff's Chief Deputy Clint Sturrock said.

The junior high school in nearby Warren also lost its roof, and fire _ likely triggered by lightning _ broke out in a pile of logs. "We just let it burn," Sturrock said.

More than 450,000 CenterPoint Energy customers in Texas were without power in the company's service area, which stretches from Galveston into Houston north to Humble, company spokeswoman Patricia Frank said. Entergy spokesman David Caplan said about 55,000 of its Texas customers in the storm-affected area were without electricity.

Rita's heaviest rains _ up to 3 to 4 inches an hour _ fell in Lake Charles, La., National Weather Service meteorologist Patrick Omundson said. The town had 8 inches of rain more than two hours before the storm's landfall. Near the coastal town of Cameron, the weather service recorded a wind gust of 112 mph as the storm's center approached.

In Vinton, west of Lake Charles, police could see several building fires from their station and took calls from residents reporting others at homes and businesses throughout town, Lt. Arthur Phillips said.

"It's tore up pretty good," he said. "We've taken quite a beating."

The roof of the town's recreation center was completely torn off, and residents reported businesses destroyed by winds and homes damaged by fallen trees, Phillips said.

The storm brought chaos even far from its path. South of Dallas, a bus of Rita evacuees caught fire in gridlocked traffic, killing as many as 24 nursing home residents who thought they were getting out of harm's way.

In Galveston, about 100 miles away from the storm's eye, a fire erupted in the historic Strand district late Friday. Wind-whipped flames leapt across three buildings. City manager Steve LeBlanc said the blaze could have been caused by downed power lines.

"It was like a war zone, shooting fire across the street," Fire Chief Michael Varela said Saturday.

Officials estimated at least 90 percent of surrounding Jefferson County residents had heeded warnings that a storm surge could submerge swaths of the low-lying county _ including the seawall-and-levee-protected city of Port Arthur, near Sabine Pass.

As the storm raged, the torches of oil refineries could still be seen burning in the distance from downtown Beaumont. Officials worried about the storm's threat to those facilities and chemical plants strung along the Texas and Louisiana coast.

The facilities represent a quarter of the nation's oil refining capacity and business analysts said damage from Rita could send gas prices as high as $4 a gallon. Environmentalists warned of the risk of a toxic spill.

In the days before the storm's arrival, hundreds of thousands of residents of Texas and Louisiana fled their homes in a mass exodus of 2.8 million people that produced gridlock and heartbreak.

Grocery shelves were emptied, gas stations ran out of fuel and motorists had to push their cars to the side of highways after idling for hours in stuck traffic and running out of gas.

Nearly 1,300 patients were airlifted out of an airport near Beaumont in a rush Thursday night and Friday morning, but only after the county's top official made a panicked call to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson for help.

"We had patients throwing up. It was very ugly," said Jefferson County Judge Carl Griffith, who blamed delays on the Transportation Security Administration, which insisted every wheelchair-bound passenger be checked with a metal-detector.

Kandy Huffman had no way to leave, and she pushed her broken-down car down the street to her home with plans to ride out the storm in Port Arthur, where the streetlights were turned off and stores were boarded up.

"All you can do is pray for best," she said as a driving rain started to fall. "We're surrounded by the people we love. Even if we have to all cuddle up, we know where everybody is."

Late Friday, southwestern Louisiana was soaked by driving rain and coastal flooding. Sugarcane fields, ranches and marshlands were already under water at dusk in coastal Cameron Parish.

The sparsely populated region was almost completely evacuated, but authorities rushed to the aid of a man who had decided to ride out the storm in a house near the Gulf of Mexico after one of man's friends called for help. They were turned back by flooded roads.

Empty coastal highways and small towns were blasted with wind-swept rain. A metal hurricane evacuation route sign along one road wagged violently in the wind, and clumps of cattle huddled in fields.

Steve Rinard, a meteorologist in Lake Charles, said he could not keep count of the tornado warnings across southern Louisiana. "They were just popping up like firecrackers," he said.

President Bush, mindful of criticism the federal government was slow to respond to Hurricane Katrina three weeks ago, planned to visit his home state Saturday. He will go to the state's emergency operations center in Austin and then to San Antonio.

In Lake Charles, home to the nation's 12th-largest seaport and refineries run by ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Citgo and Shell, nearly all 70,000 residents had evacuated. Several riverboat casinos that mostly serve tourists from Texas also closed ahead of the storm.

"We see these storms a little differently after Katrina," said city administrator Paul Rainwater. "We all realize that no matter how safe you feel ... you have to take it seriously, you have to plan."

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said over 90 percent of residents in southwestern parishes, about 150,000 people, had evacuated. For those who had not, she issued a warning: "Get to the highest ground or the highest building in your area."

Some residents of southwest Louisiana headed to a shelter in Lafayette, joining evacuees from Hurricane Katrina who had been there nearly a month.

"I am thankful for my life and that we are all safe," said Blanche Edgarson, 53, of Plaquemines Parish, an area that was devastated by Katrina. "But I'm very depressed, and I don't know where we will go from here."

Flooding reported in Lafitte

Dr. Walter Maestri, director of the Jefferson Parish emergency operations, said tidal surge from Hurricane Rita has caused flooding in the town of Lafitte where a levee was reportedly topped. He said rescue crews were in the area early Saturday trying to aid people who did not heed evacuation orders for that community.

All the pumps in the parish are operating he said, but officials remained concerned as waters continue to rise.


Rita made landfall at 3:30 a.m. EDT as a Category 3 storm just east of Sabine Pass, on the Texas-Louisiana line, bringing a 20-foot storm surge and up to 25 inches of rain, the National Hurricane Center said.

Southwest La. bears brunt of Rita

LAKE CHARLES, La. (AP) - The state's southwest corner got some of the worst Hurricane Rita had to offer Saturday, and emergency workers expected to find death and devastation when the storm's strongest horizontal rain and wind squalls passed.

Rescuers were to head to homes of people who didn't flee and called 911 asking for help when the storm started to pound southern Louisiana, flooding coastal areas. They had to wait until winds died down to safe levels before starting searches and sending out military meals, water and fuel.

"We're been getting a few calls from people who say, 'Hey, can you get me out or check on me afterwards?' and the answer is we'll check on you afterwards," said Robin Martin, who runs the emergency dispatch center in Lake Charles.

The hurricane's eye came ashore along the Louisiana-Texas line near the largely-empty oil refining towns of Lake Charles and Beaumont and Port Arthur, in Texas, bringing a 20-foot storm surge and up to 25 inches of rain.

"That's where people are going to die," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center. "All these areas are just going to get absolutely clobbered by the storm surge. All those areas are at very great risk right now."

Residents called police early Saturday to report roofs being ripped off and downed trees.

"We can't even get out to check yet," said Sgt. Wendell Carroll of Calcasieu Parish Sheriff's Office. "All we can hear is the wind a howling."

Rita's heaviest rains _ up to 3 to 4 inches an hour _ fell in Lake Charles as the storm made landfall, National Weather Service meteorologist Patrick Omundson of Shreveport said. The town had 8 inches of rain more than two hours before the storm's landfall.

Near the coastal town of Cameron, the weather service recorded a wind gust of 112 mph as the storm's center approached.