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Heading Home After Rita

For the storm-battered Gulf Coast, the images were all too familiar: Tiny fishing villages in splinters, refrigerators and coffins bobbing in floodwaters, helicopters and rescue boats making house-to-house searches of residents stranded on the rooftops.

Yet as the misery wrought by Hurricane Rita came into clearer view — particularly in the marshy towns along the Texas-Louisiana line — officials credited the epic evacuation of 3 million people for saving countless lives.

Millions who left Houston and other areas are now coming back, reports CBS News correspondent Steve Futterman. Officials are hoping people come back in stages over three days, but there's no indication if people are following that plan. Sunday there were traffic jams on many highways leading to Houston.

In other cities harder hit, like Port Arthur, there was no indication when people will be allowed back.

"We've got a long haul yet. I don't see any light for a while. I think we are going to have another few dark nights in Port Arthur," said Mayor Oscar Ortiz.

Power in Port Arthur could be out for up to a month.

In other developments:

  • In New Orleans, the U.S. Corps of Engineers moved rocks and sandbags into the holes that broke open in the Industrial Canal levee as Rita closed in, flooding the already devastated Lower Ninth Ward. Workers believe that once the breaches are closed, the Ninth Ward can be pumped dry in a week.
  • Mayor Ray Nagin immediately renewed his plan to allow some residents to return to drier parts of the city. Those areas — including the once-raucous French Quarter — could eventually support a population of at least half of its pre-Katrina population of about 500,000 residents.
  • President Bush was to receive an energy department briefing on what first Katrina and then Rita did to the nation's energy supplies, reports CBS News White House correspondent Peter Maer. Early assessments indicate most refineries escaped Rita's wrath. President Bush is also considering the politically sensitive idea of giving the military a bigger role in future natural disasters.
  • 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."

    Port Charles, La., Mayor Randy Roach is advising 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.

    There has been only one confirmed death in Texas from the hurricane, reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone. Officials say that's an indication the mass evacuation of coastal areas was the right thing to do.

    "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."

    Federal officials said the early involvement of the military helped the response this time. President Bush visited Texas and after meeting emergency managers suggested the Pentagon be given a larger role in the management of future national disasters.

  • When Hurricane Rita roared into Cameron, La., almost none of the Parish's 2,000 residents were home: They had evacuated, and that was good, reports CBS News correspondent Randall Pinkston, "because Rita kicked the door down and trashed almost everything standing — homes, businesses, schools. Almost everything was smashed to little more than matchsticks."

    But authorities Sunday had trouble keeping people from traveling through floodwaters in southern Louisiana in their boats to discover whether Rita had wrecked their homes and livelihoods.

    "I've been through quite a few of them, and we've never had water like this," said L.E. Nix, whose home on the edge of a bayou in Louisiana's Calcasieu Parish was swamped with 3 feet of water. "I had a little piece of paradise, and now I guess it's gone."

    In Houston, which was spared the brunt of Rita, officials set up a voluntary, staggered plan for an "orderly migration" with different areas going home Sunday, Monday and Tuesday to avoid the massive gridlock that accompanied the exodus out.

    By Sunday night, a seemingly endless stream of charter buses, cars and sport utility vehicles clogged the southbound lanes of Interstate 45 into Houston.

    But one problem, reports CBS News correspondent Peter King (audio), is that few businesses are open to support the returning residents.

    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.

    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.

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