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Tuesday, September 27, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Receding waters from Hurricane Rita reveal ruin; five found dead in Texas

Seattle Times news services

CREOLE, La. — Hurricane Rita's path of devastation along the Texas-Louisiana coast became shockingly clear yesterday, as rescuers pulled stranded bayou residents out on skiffs and Army helicopters searched for thousands of cattle feared drowned.

The hurricane slammed low-lying fishing villages, shrimping ports and ranches with water up to 9 feet deep. Seawater pushed as far as 20 miles inland, drowning acres of rice, sugarcane fields and pasture.

In coastal Terrebonne Parish, the count of severely damaged or destroyed homes stood at nearly 9,900. An estimated 80 percent of the buildings in the town of Cameron, population 1,900, were leveled. Farther inland, half of Creole, population 1,500, was left in splinters.

"I would use the word destroyed," Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore said of Cameron. "Cameron and Creole have been destroyed except for the courthouse, which was built on stilts on higher ground. Most of the houses and public buildings no longer exist or are even in the same location that they were."

"We used to call this sportsman's paradise," said Honore, a Louisiana native. "But sometimes Mother Nature will come back and remind us that it has power over the land. That's what this storm did."

The death toll from the second devastating hurricane in a month rose to nine with the discovery in a Beaumont, Texas, apartment of five people — a man, a woman and three children — who apparently were killed by carbon monoxide from a generator they were running indoors after Rita knocked out the electricity. A Texas couple was confirmed killed by an uprooted tree that fell on their home.

While residents of the Texas refinery towns of Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange were blocked from returning to their homes because of the danger of debris-choked streets and downed power lines, authorities in Louisiana were unable to keep bayou residents from venturing in on their own by boat to see if Rita wrecked their homes.

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

With the floodwaters going down, officials turned their attention from rescuing people to saving property, including cattle — many of which were seen swimming in the brown floodwaters.

The Army used Black Hawk helicopters equipped with satellite positioning systems to search for cattle amid fears as many as 4,000 may have been killed in Cameron Parish alone, where ranchers on horseback struggled to herd the animals into corrals attached to pickups.

About 300,000 customers were without power in Louisiana, and 250,000 in Texas yesterday, a number cut in half since the storm hit. A spokesman for Entergy, a major utility in both states, said it could be more than a month before some customers have power restored, and rolling blackouts are possible if residents do not cut back on usage.

Government

Brown regrets not acting sooner

WASHINGTON — Former FEMA director Michael Brown said yesterday he should have sought help faster from the Pentagon after Hurricane Katrina hit, and accused state and local officials of constant infighting during the crisis, according to congressional aides.

Brown is continuing to work at the Federal Emergency Management Agency at full pay, with his Sept. 12 resignation not taking effect for two more weeks, said Homeland Security Department spokesman Russ Knocke.

Brown is to testify today in front of a special House committee investigating the government's response to the Aug. 29 disaster.

Brown came to symbolize the halting federal efforts to rescue victims of the storm and flooding that followed, in which more than 1,000 people died in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He was criticized for being a Bush administration political appointee without deep emergency-management experience.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff removed Brown from his on-site role overseeing the disaster response Sept. 9. He announced his resignation from FEMA three days later.

A memo from a Republican staffer who attended the briefing with congressional aides said Brown expressed regrets "that he did not start screaming for DoD (Department of Defense) involvement" sooner. The first substantial numbers of active-duty troops responding to the Gulf Coast were sent Sept. 3 — five days after the storm hit.

According to the memo, obtained by The Associated Press, Brown said Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin "sparred during the crisis and could not work together cooperatively."

The congressional inquiry, chaired by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., is made up mostly of Republicans. Most Democrats have boycotted the investigation, which they say should be done by an independent commission.

However, at least two Democrats whose home states were crushed by Katrina — Reps. Gene Taylor of Mississippi and Charlie Melancon of Louisiana — planned to attend today's hearing.

Two agencies lauded for handling storm

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., said yesterday that two vital agencies — the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center — met the challenges of Katrina and Rita.

Earlier, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., chairman of a Senate Commerce subcommittee on disaster prevention and prediction, said the Weather Service, in tracking Katrina, produced "one of the most accurate hurricane predictions we have ever seen."

Davis said the two agencies "passed Katrina's test with flying colors."

Davis and DeMint pointed out that countless lives were saved because of the early and accurate warnings that flowed from the Hurricane Center as Katrina marched across the Gulf of Mexico in late August.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the House Democratic leader, praised the Weather Service last week for "probably ... the best performance of any of the federal agencies in all of this."

Max Mayfield, director of the Hurricane Center, said forecasts of where Katrina would go "were more accurate than usual."

Mayfield personally called state and local leaders two days ahead of time to warn them about Katrina, and gave daily pre-storm briefings to Homeland Security officials, Davis said.

Energy

Fearing fuel crisis, schools close

ATLANTA — Hundreds of thousands of Georgia children got a break from classes yesterday after Gov. Sonny Perdue asked schools to close for two days as a hedge against possible fuel shortages, leaving many parents struggling to arrange child care.

The shortages that Perdue feared never materialized, largely because Hurricane Rita proved less damaging to Gulf Coast refineries than initially expected.

Parents learned of the governor's decision late Friday afternoon and many families scrambled over the weekend to make alternate arrangements for their children.

Meanwhile, gas supplies were moving freely through pipelines that serve Georgia.

However, the governor's staff said yesterday that shortages still were possible later in the week because production was shut down for days because of the storm.

In Washington, President Bush praised Perdue, saying the Republican governor "showed some leadership" in "anticipating a problem."

Also...

Two swimmers died and more than a dozen others had to be rescued from rough surf kicked up by the remnants of Hurricane Rita along the Florida Panhandle, officials said. On Saturday at Miramar Beach, where the water had been closed to swimmers, Ronald J. Hallquist, 52, of Walton, Ky., died. Martin D. Gelfand, 54, died Sunday at Pensacola Beach, about 50 miles west of Miramar Beach. Witnesses saw him walk out of the surf and collapse as he turned back toward the water, said Sgt. Robert Johnson of the Escambia County Sheriff's Office.

Compiled from The Associated Press, Reuters and The Washington Post

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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