Rita: The Gulf's Other Hurricane

A dirty U.S. flag stands in the middle of rubble left in the wake of Hurricane Rita, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2005, near Main Street on Highway 27 in Cameron, La. (AP Photo/The Dallas Morning News, Irwin Thompson)
AP/The Dallas Morning News
A year after Hurricane Rita, the grave at Ebenezer Baptist Cemetery sits empty, half-filled with stagnant water, its vault and casket yanked out of the ground and carried north by churning floodwater from the Gulf of Mexico.

Across southwest Louisiana, cemeteries still bear scars from Hurricane Rita. Six-foot rectangular holes in the soil. Hunters and farmers make grim calls to the coroner after stumbling across caskets miles away from the graves.

"We could be recovering caskets, from here on, for years," said Charlie Hunter, a coroner's investigator working in Cameron and Calcasieu parishes. "It's going to be a long process."

Rita also wreaked havoc on the living. Coastal towns splintered in the waves, tens of thousands of cattle drowned, hundreds of homes were smashed by tornados and crushed by snapped pine trees. Two men drowned in Louisiana; scores of people died in Texas while fleeing the storm, including 23 elderly patients in a bus explosion.

As the region marks Category 3 Rita's one-year anniversary this weekend with a series of commemorative events, the recovery is more apparent in urban areas than in rural communities and the environmentally sensitive coastal marsh.

For example, Lake Charles, the largest city in southwest Louisiana, is humming along. Tons of storm debris have been hauled off, the petrochemical industry has returned to pre-storm output, blackjack cards are dealt and slot machines clang in the casinos.

"I think the recovery here has gone remarkably well, remarkably quickly, at least in the phase we've been through," said Michael Kurth, an economist at McNeese State University, co-author of a state-sponsored study on Rita and its aftermath.