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Monday, September 26, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A million in Texas, Louisiana still without power

BEAUMONT, Texas — Hurricane Rita's imprint — washed-out towns, wind damage and trapped residents — became ever-more apparent yesterday as authorities took stock of the wreckage.

Officials said an estimated 1 million residents in Texas and Louisiana remained without power 36 hours after Rita made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane early Saturday near Sabine Pass, Texas. Federal search teams reported more than 400 rescues of people trapped by the storm, with local authorities working from boats up and down the Texas and Louisiana coasts tallying hundreds more.

In contrast to Hurricane Katrina, with its death toll of more than 1,000, only two deaths were directly attributed to the storm, which dissipated quickly rather than stalling and dumping 2 feet of rain as forecasters had predicted.

By yesterday, it was a tropical depression with top sustained winds of 20 mph located about 20 miles southeast of Hot Springs, Ark.

Rita's rainy remnants swept through the Mississippi River valley, provoking flash-flood alerts in seven states. Forecasters said the system moved faster than expected and the threat of catastrophic inland flooding had diminished.

A person was killed in north-central Mississippi when a tornado spawned by the hurricane overturned a mobile home, and an east Texas man died after he was struck by a fallen tree.

Across the region, many of the more than 3 million residents who were estimated to have evacuated before Rita arrived began their long pilgrimages back home, even though some authorities urged them not to rush back before full services could be restored.

In eastern Texas, the Livingston Dam was overburdened by water, and hundreds of homes along the Trinity River were destined to be flooded this week as officials ordered wide-scale evacuations and an unprecedented release of water from Lake Livingston.

Other, smaller places were hit much harder. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco surveyed devastated coastal towns by helicopter.

"You can't tell where the Gulf [of Mexico] starts and ends," Blanco said. "There's water as far as the eye can see."

Stranded victims in Louisiana were taken to safety by an army of rescue workers and volunteers who spent yesterday cruising the flooded coastal communities by airboat, helicopter, truck and even tractor.

"Every time you turn around, there was another truckload of people," said David Abshire, 50, a deputy in the Vermilion Parish Sheriff's Department Reserve.

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.

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.

Inland, the town of Lake Charles lost every major electrical-transmission line, and power may not be fully restored for weeks, said Norman Bourdeau, the operations manager for the Calcasieu Parish office of emergency preparedness. Drinking water won't be available for two days or more, and the town was closed to returning citizens for at least that long.

Although utilities across the region made some progress restoring power yesterday, hundreds of thousands of customers were still without electricity.

Damage to the vital concentration of oil refineries along the coast appeared relatively light, although industry officials said it was too early to assess whether there would be an impact on oil prices.

Valero Energy said two cooling towers and a flare stack at its 255,000-barrel-per-day Port Arthur refinery sustained significant damage and it would need at least two weeks to do repairs.

Retailers reopen,

restock shelves

NEW YORK — Retailers said yesterday that most stores forced to close because of Hurricane Rita have reopened and are restocking their shelves as they wait for residents to return home.

Wal-Mart, which closed 155 facilities Saturday morning, reopened all but 52 by yesterday, according to Linda Blakely, a company spokeswoman.

Rival Target has only five stores still closed in the Gulf Coast region, including one in Metarie, La., that hasn't been open since Hurricane Katrina hit Aug. 29. The discounter had closed 32 stores Saturday morning.

Walgreen said yesterday that more than 160 out of the 208 Houston-area stores that were forced to close Friday reopened as of yesterday.

Home Depot, the nation's largest home-improvement retailer, said only two of the 46 stores that were shuttered Saturday morning remained closed.

Many East Texans

spared, thankful

TYLER, Texas — Rita caused far less damage in East Texas than feared when it blew through Saturday, and many gathered in churches to give thanks for their survival.

Reaching into a white plastic bag yesterday, pastor Michael Massar pulled out a broken tree limb — a symbol of Hurricane Rita.

"The winds are going to blow, it says in the Bible, and we want you to be strong," Massar told the church's children during yesterday's services at the packed First Baptist Church.

"Thank God we have electricity to hold Mass," the Rev. Kevin Collins told about 80 parishioners at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in East Houston.

Black mold

dooming houses

NEW ORLEANS — Black mold is consuming thousands of homes in New Orleans.

"All these homes will have to be bulldozed," said Frank Enright, one of seven haz-mat firefighters sent here from a Chicago Heights, Ill, unit.

Black mold spurs get in behind plaster or drywall and grow into the wood, Enright explained. And he said the mold, a serious health hazard, is impossible to kill.

Compiled from The Associated Press, Knight Ridder Newspapers, Gannett News Service

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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