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Officials Continue Search for Stranded in Wake of Rita

Despite heavy damage to the cities of Lake Charles, La. and Beaumont, Texas, officials credited the massive evacuation of more than 3 million people from the Gulf Coast region for the fact that only two deaths had been tied to the storm as of late Sunday night.

“As bad as it could have been, we came out of this in pretty good shape,” said Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who called the lack of widespread fatalities “miraculous.”

Authorities estimated that rescue operations should be completed later Monday and then officials would turn to assessing the damage from the storm. In many battered towns, correspondents reported total destruction, with little remaining of some towns other than the concrete slabs where houses once stood.

In Cameron Parish, on the Louisiana/Texas line, fishing communities were reduced to splinters by the worst of Rita’s winds. Debris was reportedly strewn for miles by water or wind.

“In Cameron, there’s really hardly anything left. Everything is just obliterated,” Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said Sunday.

Cameron Parish Sheriff Theos Duhon told Agence France-Presse that he expected to find bodies as the search continued.

“It’s a very grim picture. … There are no fatalities so far but I suspect there will be a few,” Duhon said.

President Bush, criticized for the speed of the federal response after Hurricane Katrina four weeks ago, was in Louisiana Sunday for briefings with state officials.

“I know the people of this state have been through a lot,” he said after the meeting. “We ask for God’s blessings on them and their families.”

Despite the damage and flooding, local officials said that the situation was already improving.

“The good news is that the water is going down, it’s kind of back in the banks of the lake and our recovery process is well under way,” Randy Roach, mayor of the storm-battered Louisiana city of Lake Charles, told CBS’s “The Morning Show.” “The response has been tremendous. I really appreciate everything that the federal government has done to help us.”

In New Orleans, where Rita’s storm surge caused renewed flooding of parts of the city, the mayor started allowing people to return to some of the less damaged neighborhoods.

“With Hurricane Rita behind us, the task at hand is to bring New Orleans back,” Mayor Ray Nagin said. “We want people to return and help us rebuild the city. However, we want everyone to assess the risks and make an informed decision about re-entry plans.”

The mayor’s office said residents of the Algiers neighborhood could return Monday and that business owners from the French Quarter and the Uptown areas would be allowed in to inspect their properties and begin the cleanup.

Although the damage from Rita was minor compared to Katrina, experts still say the cost of repairing the businesses and homes wrecked by the storm could still be enormous.

CNN/Money reported Monday that early damage estimates from three major catastrophe risk modeling companies put insured losses at between $2.5 billion to $7 billion in eastern Texas and western Louisiana.

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