Recovery efforts are getting underway in Texas and Louisiana, where Hurricane Rita came ashore Saturday, and began weakening as it moved inland. Officials are awaiting damage assessments on infrastructure and crucial oil facilities in the Gulf of Mexico region.
Military search-and-rescue teams are on the ground in Texas and Louisiana to help those affected by the storm that came ashore along the border between the two states.
The acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, David Paulison, says teams have begun providing survival supplies to victims of the storm, which ripped down trees and flooded some areas. "We're also sending in high-water vehicles into those areas that are flooded. And those high-water vehicles are carrying food, water and they're doing basic first aid, basic medical supplies. And they're also doing some damage assessment for us, so we can get a good handle exactly where the damage is and how significant it is," he said.
A focus of damage assessments after the hurricane will be on oil facilities in the Gulf region, which is responsible for about one-fourth of the oil and natural gas produced in the United States and is home to one-third of the nation's oil refineries.
The U.S. Minerals Management Service said Saturday that Hurricane Rita shut down all oil production in the Gulf of Mexico, as 745 oil rigs and platforms were evacuated before the storm.
A spokesman for the Department of Energy, Craig Stevens, says they are still awaiting damage reports on oil facilities in Louisiana and eastern Texas. But he says reports from Houston indicate there was minimal damage to shipping and refinery operations near the city. "Based on our modeling of where the storm impacted and how it came ashore, we're cautiously optimistic at this point that it [Hurricane Rita] wasn't as bad as people had initially predicted, especially when it comes to any potential damage to the refineries of that area," he said.
Mr. Stevens also says energy officials are working to overcome gasoline shortages caused by the storm. He said officials may release portions of the federal petroleum reserve or expand international supplies of fuel for the U.S. market.
Since coming ashore, Rita has been downgraded from hurricane status, but weather officials warn the storm will continue to dump torrential rain on parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi and most of Louisiana.
The rain is unwelcome news in the low-lying city of New Orleans, Louisiana, which experienced severe flooding last month when its levees broke under the pressure of Hurricane Katrina.
Officials said storm surges from Hurricane Rita caused new flooding Saturday in parts of the city that had mostly dried out from the earlier floods. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said the latest storm has caused a delay of three to five days in the massive efforts to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. But he says rebuilding will continue. "Now that the storm has passed us, we are still monitoring our levee system closely, they are not as strong as we would like them to be, but they seem to be holding up. And as soon as the water starts to subside, we should feel much better," he said.
Even as the immediate threat from hurricane Rita has subsided, emergency officials said people should remain inside to avoid the danger from flooding and hazards caused by the storm.
Despite the warnings, thousands of people who had fled Houston ahead of Hurricane Rita tried to return home, clogging area highways. On a visit to the Texas capital of Austin, President Bush called on Houston residents to stay where they are for the time being, to allow rescue workers to do their job. "We're moving assets, military assets for example trying to help people who need help, and highways are clogged, so it's going to make it hard to get those assets into the affected areas," he said.
Officials had ordered massive evacuation efforts ahead of Hurricane Rita, which helped avoid the loss of life experienced during Hurricane Katrina last month. But the combined effect of the two storms along the Gulf coast will require significant recovery and rebuilding efforts for weeks to come.