Hurricane Rita Damage Less Than Expected; Feds, Volunteers Respond

Hurricane Rita wreaked havoc along the Gulf Coast yesterday, causing floods, fires, and destroying property, but officials were relieved as damage levels weren’t as bad as expected, especially in wake of Hurricane Katrina’s ongoing aftermath.

Rita’s 15-foot storm left floodwaters of up to nine feet in depth in cities along the Louisiana shoreline. New Orleans, which was hit by Katrina only three weeks ago, was also flooded for the second straight day.

The Army Corps of Engineers told the Associated Press (AP) it would need at least two weeks to pump water from the most heavily flooded neighborhoods — notably the impoverished Lower Ninth Ward — after crews plug a series of levee breaches.

In Beaumont, Texas, one brick wall of an office building had collapsed, and trees, power lines, and broken glass from windows were strewn across the street.

Several fires broke out in eastern Texas, including one in a two-story apartment building in Houston that damaged at least eight units, AP reported.

Power is currently out for more than 1 million customers in the Gulf Coast region.

In contrast to Hurricane Katrina, however, which caused over 1,000 deaths on its rampage through New Orleans and Mississippi, no fatalities have been attributed to Rita so far.

Rita also spared major cities including Houston and New Orleans the brunt of its force, causing far less destruction in the areas than had been anticipated.

"The damage is not as serious as we had expected it to be," said R. David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in a statement released yesterday. "The evacuations worked."

Rita made landfall at 1:30 CDT last night near the Texas-Louisiana border, coming ashore as a Category 3 with 120 mph winds and warnings of up to 25 inches of rain.

The storm has since weakened to a tropical depression, with its center located about 40 miles north of Shreveport Louisiana.

Although storm conditions are no longer life-threatening, officials pleaded with the near 3 million evacuees not to be hasty in their return home, as essential services are still lacking in the evacuated areas.

“Be patient, stay put,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said yesterday, according to AP. “If you are in a safe place with food, water, bedding, you are better remaining there for the time being.”

President Bush, who met with personnel at the Texas Emergency Operations Center in Austin yesterday, echoed local officials, asking evacuees to leave highways open for “military assets” and other personnel that are aiding in relief efforts.

“Even though the storm has passed the coastline, the situation is still dangerous because of potential flooding,” he said. “People who are safe now ought to remain in safe conditions.”

“I know for a lot of folks in the states, these are miserable times,” Bush continued. “I hope you can take some comfort knowing there’s a lot of people – like the people in this room who are working overtime to save you and to help you; and I think you’ll be amazed by the extraordinary compassion of the people of Texas as they rise up to help their fellow citizens in need.”

Federal relief efforts are already in place with truckloads of food, water, and ice, and emergency response teams having been pre-positioned in Texas throughout last week.

According to President Bush’s radio address given this afternoon, several Navy ships – including the Iwo Jima, the Shreveport, the Tortuga, and others – have been stationed in areas affected by Rita, and nearly 3,500 National Guardsmen have been activated in Texas.

Bush also noted that Coast Guard cutters, aircraft, and helicopters are in place, “ready to rescue, evacuate, and relocate civilians trapped by the storm.”

Recovery efforts for Hurricane Katrina were also addressed by Bush over the radio, with the President mentioning the federal government, state and local leaders, and the private sector as ones with a “vital role” to “rebuild lives and communities.”

“The past three weeks have tested our nation and revealed the strength and resilience of our people,” said Bush. “Americans have the determination and the will to overcome any challenge from man or nature. The courageous spirit of America will carry us through any storm, and the compassionate soul of our nation will help us rebuild.”

With needs continuing to rise from the aftermath of Katrina and Rita, volunteer organizations and personnel across the nation are spreading their resources thin to aid those who need care.

The American Red Cross has projected at least a $2 billion tab to cover the response to Hurricane Katrina, and untold additional expenses for Hurricane Rita. So far the organization has raised nearly $854 million, and already spent or committed $700 million for Katrina relief.

“We have a long way to go in our fundraising to meet the needs of people from Katrina, let alone what we need to do for the people of Rita," Joe Becker, senior vice president of preparedness and response with the Red Cross, told reporters in Washington. "As fast as the money is coming in, we are spending it."

In preparation for Rita, the Red Cross pre-positioned supplies around Dallas and San Antionio including 145,000 heater meals, 20,000 cots, 34 kitchens and food for kitchens. The organization is now working on opening up shelters for victims of Hurricane Rita.

“In Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi our role at this point for Rita is to pen evacuation shelters,” Becker said. “They are open and filling as we speak. We’re opening shelters as needed and we will open as far away from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi as needed.”

The Salvation Army – the second largest disaster relief organization in North America, behind the American Red Cross – was also on site for Rita yesterday, responding to stranded motorists, sheltered evacuees and soldiers ready to deploy after the storm moved past them.

The Christian charity organization served nearly 3,000 meals to the National Guard and emergency personnel in Houston and San Antonio, and handed out 160,000 bottles of water to motorists stuck in traffic along I-10 and I-45 as they evacuated.

“Before the storms come, during the storms and well after the storms have gone, The Salvation Army is prepared and ready to respond with meals, water, shelter and personnel trained to help people and communities,” said Major George Hood, the Salvation Army’s national community relations and development secretary, in a statement released yesterday.

Beginning Thursday afternoon, the Salvation Army opened two shelters in the north Houston area where more than 450 mostly low-income residents who were unable to evacuate the city found refuge before the storm made landfall. The organization is also providing thousands of hot meals to evacuees in shelters in Amarillo, Lubbock, Dallas, Lufkin and Austin.

The Salvation Army has resources prepared to serve up to 560,000 hot meals per day at designated shelters and from vehicles dispatched to the hardest hit locations.

In their response to Katrina, the organization has already served more than 4 million meals and assisted nearly 500,000 people throughout the three states directly impacted – Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi – and neighboring states, including Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

The Army has also helped to locate 8,400 loved ones separated by Katrina through the Salvation Army team Emergency Radio Network (SATERN).

To make a contribution to the Salvation Army, log on to www.1800SALARMY.org or call 1-800-SAL-ARMY.