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Gulf Coast Evacuees Head Home

Rescuers pushed their way into once-inaccessible neighborhoods as Hurricane Rita's floodwaters receded along the Texas-Louisiana coast Monday. The death toll climbed to seven when the bodies of five people were discovered in a Beaumont apartment.

The five apparently were overcome by fumes from a generator they were using for power after the hurricane, authorities said.

Elsewhere, life began getting back to normal following Hurricane Rita's arrival over the weekend as residents streamed back to the Gulf Coast.

Traffic into Houston was reported moving smoothly again as hundreds of thousands of Hurricane Rita evacuees returned home. There were reports of congestion Sunday, but more traffic lights were back in commission and traffic was said to be moving well into the city.

CBS News correspondent Steve Futterman reports there are virtually no power problems in Houston, gasoline is readily available and stores are reopening.

A long line of customers waited outside a downtown Starbucks as it reopened for the first time. Customers sat outdoors with their drinks, despite hot, humid weather.

To the east, however, where Rita came ashore, it was a different story. There was still no power in Beaumont and Port Arthur and residents were being told to stay away. Although Interstate 10 was open through the area, all exits were closed as emergency officials tried to keep the damaged, flooded cities sealed off to all but emergency vehicles.

"Until we get power back, its unsafe for people to be living here," said Port Arthur police officer Nathan Mingo.

In other developments:

  • In a visit to the Energy Department, President Bush was briefed on Rita's impact on energy production and prices, reports CBS News correspondent Mark Knoller. The initial assessment is that Rita's impact was far less than Katrina's, although at least 16 oil refineries in Texas remain shut down.
  • Houston's two main airports, George Bush Intercontinental and the smaller William P. Hobby, have resumed service, and airlines were increasing their flights into and out of the city.
  • A tornado spawned by the remnants of Hurricane Rita ripped through Mississippi State University's campus, injuring four people and forcing cancellation of Monday's classes. It was one of at least 14 twisters that touched down Sunday in Mississippi, meteorologists said. More than 100 homes were damaged.
  • American Red Cross President Marty Evans, appearing on CBS News' The Early Show, said: "Unfortunately, we've only raised about half of the over $2 billion that both Katrina and Rita are requiring of us."

    Other deaths attributed to Rita were a person killed in north-central Mississippi when a tornado spawned by the hurricane overturned a mobile home, and an east Texas man struck by a fallen tree. Two dozen evacuees were killed before the storm hit in a fatal bus fire near Dallas.

    Officials credited the epic evacuation of 3 million people for saving countless lives. There were only two reported deaths in Texas and Louisiana, although in Florida, 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 coast of the Panhandle, the northwestern sliver of Florida.

    Port Charles, La., Mayor Randy Roach advised residents to stay away for a few more days.

    "Bottom line is there are no services here, no water, no electricity, there is no gas, there is no food. You can't flush. You can't even supply our hospitals," he told Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith.

    Still, coming on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, where many chose to ride out the storm with deadly consequences, the news coming from the aftermath of Rita was for the most part positive.


  • Petrochemical plants that supply a quarter of the nation's gasoline suffered only a glancing blow, with just one major plant facing weeks of repairs.

    Mr. Bush nonetheless warned Americans to expect some affect on energy supplies.

    "A lot of our production comes from the Gulf and when you have a Hurricane Katrina followed by a Hurricane Rita, it's natural, unfortunately, that it's going to affect supplies," the president said after a briefing at the Energy Department.

    "It's important for our people to know that we understand the situation and we're willing to use the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to mitigate any shortfall in crude oil that could affect our consumers."

    The reflooding in New Orleans from levee breaks was isolated mostly to areas already destroyed and deserted. And contrary to dire forecasts, Rita and its heavy rains moved quickly north instead of parking over the South for days and dumping a predicted 25 inches of rain.

    Along the central Louisiana coastline, where Rita's heavy rains and storm-surge flooding pushed water up to 9 feet in homes and into fields of sugarcane and rice, weary evacuees slowly returned to see the damage.

    Staring at the ground, shoulders stooped, clearly exhausted, many came back with stories of deer stuck on levees and cows swimming through seawater miles from the Gulf of Mexico.

    Driving into the town of Henry in Vermilion Parish, Jerome Guidry noticed his house wasn't where it was.

    "My house is in the cane field," moved off its foundation by the floodwaters and swept 500 feet away into his sugarcane fields, he told CBS News Correspondent Cami McCormick. "Oh, my God!"

    His fields are also swamped now, with saltwater.

    An estimated 1,000 people were rescued in Vermilion Parish, said Chief Sheriff's Deputy Kirk Frith. About 50 people remained on a checklist, and Frith said authorities would probably conclude rescue operations by Monday and begin damage assessment.

    In Cameron Parish, just across the state line from Texas and in the path of Rita's harshest winds, fishing communities were reduced to splinters, with concrete slabs the only evidence that homes once stood there. Debris was strewn for miles by water or wind. Holly Beach, a popular vacation and fishing spot, was gone. Only the stilts that held houses off the ground remained.

    "In Cameron, there's really hardly anything left. Everything is just obliterated," said Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who has asked the federal government for $34 billion to aid in storm recovery.

    Just across the state line, Texas' Perry toured the badly hit refinery towns of Beaumont and Port Arthur area by air Sunday.

    "Look at that," he said, pointing to a private aircraft hangar with a roof that was half collapsed and half strewn across the surrounding field. "It looks like a blender just went over the top of it."

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