Although the storm packed wind gusts of 150 mph and 15 foot waves as it came ashore, Rita appeared far less destructive than Hurricane Katrina, which struck less than a month ago.
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 top winds of 120 mph and warnings of up to 25 inches of rain, the National Hurricane Center said.
More than 3 million people had reportedly fled the Gulf Coast region ahead of Rita’s arrival. This massive exodus prompted officials to express confidence that, although damage could be extensive, the death toll from the storm should be nothing like the 1,078 who have been confirmed killed by Katrina.
In Jefferson County, which includes Beaumont and Port Arthur, emergency official Carl Griffith estimated that only 10 to 15 percent of the county’s 250,000 residents had stayed behind, as compared to 40 percent in previous evacuations. In Cameron Parish, just south of Lake Charles, La., nearly all of the 9,000 residents had evacuated by late Friday. About 95 percent of the 200,000 residents in Calcasieu Parish, which includes Lake Charles, had evacuated, officials estimated.
By mid-morning Saturday, Rita had weakened further to a Category 1 storm with sustained winds of approximately 75 mph as it passed near Jasper, Texas, and continued to track not far from the border.
In Lake Charles, La., which was on the more dangerous east side of Rita, officials said significant wind damage had been the most significant impact from the storm. There were reports of major damage to the airport as well as the collapse of an overpass on Interstate 110 near Lake Charles. Windows were reportedly blown out of several major downtown buildings and riverboat casinos had come off their moorings and were adrift in the Houston shipping channel.
But many of the damage reports would continue to emerge throughout Saturday as the winds die down and the daylight allows a better assessment of the damage.
“We have trees across roads. In downtown we have observed several businesses totally destroyed,” the AP quoted George Mullican, a police spokesman from Sulphur, La., just west of Lake Charles, as saying. “It’s too dangerous to send anyone out right now because of the wind.”
Despite those reports, officials in Lake Charles told reporters they were somewhat relieved, saying, “The storm surge was not as bad as expected.”
As the sun came up in downtown Beaumont, a port city of 114,000, local authorities and reporters emerged to find some blown out windows, damaged roofs, signs twisted and lying in the street and scattered downed trees, the AP reported. There was some standing water, but no significant flooding.
The storm appeared to completely spare Houston, where hundreds of thousands had been ordered to evacuate when Rita was a monstrous Category 5 storm in the Gulf of Mexico with winds of 175 mph.
“We’re still not out of the woods,” Houston mayor Bill White told CNN. “The rain is still falling, the bayous are rising and the power is out. We will need time to recover.”
In New Orleans, a lighter than expected rainfall spared much of the Katrina-battered city from another major flood. Only about three inches fell in the city, but a major storm surge of 6 to 9 feet breeched at least one of the city’s levees, sending several feet of water back into the deserted Ninth Ward, a poorer part of the city that was flooded with 30 feet of water in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
“Overall, it looks like New Orleans has lucked out in that they didn’t get the heaviest rainfall,” weather service meteorologist Phil Grigsby told the AP.
President Bush, who was widely criticized for his and the government’s sluggish response to Katrina, received numerous briefings on the track and fallout of the storm Saturday.
“Our federal government is well organized and well prepared to deal with Rita,” President Bush said. “The first order of business now is search and rescue teams — to pull people out of harm’s way,” he said.
The president cautioned those who had evacuated the region to be careful about returning home.
“The situation is still dangerous because of flooding,” Mr. Bush said. “It’s important for them to listen to the local authorities about whether or not it is safe for them to return to their homes.”