Hurricane Rita slammed into Texas and Louisiana early Saturday, smashing windows, sparking fires and knocking power out to more than 1 million customers, but largely sparing vulnerable Houston and already reeling New Orleans and the region's vital oil refining industry.
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.
By Saturday afternoon, Rita was downgraded to a tropical storm with maximum winds of 65 mph. Forecasters said the storm was to weaken further in the next 24 hours.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said while the storm remains dangerous, there have been no reported fatalities as a result of the storm. "The damage is not as serious as we had expected it to be," said acting FEMA director R. David Paulison. "The evacuations worked."
CBS News has planned expanded coverage of Hurricane Rita this weekend. For details,
Fears of severe flooding persisted. Parts of the east Texas counties of Jasper and Tyler had received 10 inches to 12 inches of rain, the National Weather Service said.
There were no immediate reports of fatalities, though rescuers and search teams in many areas had to wait for winds to subside before venturing out. The Energy Department said it appeared the oil industry, especially the concentration of refineries in the Houston-Texas City area, had escaped major damage.
About 3 million people had fled a 500-mile stretch of the Texas-Louisiana coast ahead of the storm, motivated in part by the devastating toll that Hurricane Katrina inflicted on New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast barely three weeks ago.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry urged those who evacuated Houston and other areas not to return until officials declare their communities safe.
"Be patient, stay put," he said. "If you are in a safe place with food, water, bedding, you are better remaining there for the time being."
CBS News correspondent Trish Regan reports that nearly 1,000 people rode out the storm in a make-shift shelter at Sam Houston State University, in Huntsville, Texas. Regan reports that other families who ran out of gas were
The storm spun off tornadoes as it churned northwest, causing transformers to explode. In Jasper County, a house with seven people inside floated in floodwaters after it came off its foundation, said sheriff's communications supervisor Alice Duckworth.
But the flood-prone cities of Houston and Galveston, largely evacuated over the past four days, escaped a direct hit.
"So far, Houston is weathering the storm," Mayor Bill White said Saturday. His police department received 28 burglary calls overnight and made 16 arrests, fewer than a typical Friday night, White said.
In New Orleans, rain drenched parts of the abandoned city early Saturday, straining the levee system damaged by Katrina and causing more flooding in already ruined and abandoned poor neighborhoods. But the forecast of up to 3 inches throughout the day was less than had been previously predicted.
"Overall, it looks like New Orleans has lucked out," National Weather Service Meteorologist Phil Grigsby said.
Heavy rain fell south of New Orleans in low-lying Jefferson Parish, where a tidal surge of six to seven feet swamped some neighborhoods. Residents of Lafitte, a town of 1,600 south of New Orleans, were being evacuated by bus.
In southwestern Louisiana, authorities had trouble reaching stranded residents because of blocked roads and savage winds. Some of the worst early damage reports were out of Vinton, where several fires were burning, the roof was torn off the town's recreation center and homes were damaged by fallen trees, Lt. Arthur Phillips said.
A Coast Guard rescue team airlifted a pregnant woman and her 4-year-old son to safety from the flooded coastal town of Port Fourchon, about 60 miles south of New Orleans.
In Lake Charles, home to the nation's 12th-largest seaport and refineries run by ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Citgo and Shell, nearly all of the 70,000 residents had evacuated. Several riverboat casinos that mostly serve tourists from Texas also closed ahead of the storm.
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said over 90 percent of residents in southwestern parishes, about 150,000 people, had evacuated.
Fires were reported in and around Houston, including one in a two-story apartment building in southeast Houston that left at least eight units damaged, authorities said. Nobody was hurt, according to District Chief Jack Williams. Several buildings were damaged or destroyed by fire in Galveston, and a blaze broke out before dawn at a shopping complex in Pasadena. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
As the sun came up in downtown Beaumont, a port city of 114,000, the few people who stayed behind emerged to find some blown out windows, damaged roofs, signs twisted and lying in the street and scattered downed trees. There was some standing water, but no significant flooding.
The wind was still gusting, but nothing like the 100-mph winds that ripped through early Saturday morning. A light rain was falling.
In Beaumont's nine-story Elegante Hotel in Beaumont, wind blew out massive windows in the hotel lobby, bringing down a chandelier and ripping the roof off another section of lobby.
"We stayed in a stairwell most of the time," said Rainey Chretien, who works at the front desk. "I didn't think it was going to be this bad."
From his ninth-floor hotel room there, CBS News correspondent Randall Pinkston reports that the
"It is akin to the sensation of being on a moving train. What's disorienting is that a hotel room isn't supposed to move," Pinkston says.
As the storm raged, the torches of oil refineries could be seen burning in the distance from downtown Beaumont. Officials worried about the storm's threat to those facilities and chemical plants strung along the Texas and Louisiana coast.
The facilities represent a quarter of the nation's oil refining capacity and business analysts said damage from Rita could send gas prices as high as $4 a gallon. Environmentalists warned of the risk of a toxic spill.
In the days before the storm's arrival, hundreds of thousands of residents of Texas and Louisiana fled their homes in a mass exodus that produced gridlock and heartbreak.
South of Dallas, a bus of Rita evacuees caught fire in gridlocked traffic, killing as many as 24 nursing home residents who thought they were getting out of harm's way.
Grocery shelves were emptied, gas stations ran out of fuel and motorists had to push their cars to the side of highways after idling for hours in stuck traffic and running out of gas.
White, the Houston mayor, expressed frustration: "It is just totally unacceptable that there was not adequate fuel supplies stashed around the state," he said.
In Tyler County in eastern Texas, high winds ripped roofs off several buildings, including the police department in Woodville, sheriff's Chief Deputy Clint Sturrock said.
At least 925,000 people in Texas and 300,000 in Louisiana were without electricity, according to local utility companies.
In Galveston, about 100 miles away from the storm's eye, a fire erupted in the historic Strand district late Friday. Wind-whipped flames leapt across three buildings. City manager Steve LeBlanc said the blaze could have been caused by downed power lines.
"It was like a war zone, shooting fire across the street," Fire Chief Michael Varela said Saturday.