Rita response showed gains

From the federal to local levels, efforts have been more orderly.

The Air Force sent recovery helicopters from nuclear missile bases in the mountain West.

The Department of Energy created a floating gas station for relief efforts, using the SS Potomac, a pipeline vessel, at the port of Orange in Texas.

The Agriculture Department sent 50 veterinarians and wildlife specialists to help stranded pets and zoo animals.

The national response to hurricane Rita - from the federal government, as well as from states and local municipalities - appears to have been focused and orderly in a way that the response to hurricane Katrina was not.

It helps that the storm itself was not as ferocious as the one that swamped New Orleans, and that most people in harm's way fled before its onslaught. The slowness of the road evacuation, however, raised questions about whether any large US city can be emptied in a timely manner.

Still, disaster planners had two things working in their favor: forewarning, plus the sting of a recent botched example. Neither factor might be present in the next natural disaster or in a terrorist attack.

"With Rita, we had the benefit of time. We may not have that time in an earthquake scenario or similar incident," said Maj. Gen. John White, a member of the military task force for hurricane Rita, on Sunday.

Nevertheless, the general feeling in the area after the storm passed appeared to be one of relief. Take the experience of Port Arthur, a petrochemical industry town near the Texas-Louisiana border.

Patrolling the Lakeside area of Port Arthur, Jefferson County Constable Eddie Collins says he's seen mostly wind damage, with trees downed and roofs ripped off - but no water damage.

Because 90 percent of the town evacuated for the storm, he's keeping an eye on property while residents are kept out. "I can't give enough praise to the people for leaving," said Constable Collins.

He and other local law-enforcement officials hunkered down in a community north of Beaumont for the storm. Now, he believes the recovery efforts will go much more smoothly than in New Orleans because "little communities lack the red tape." He adds, "Any time you have large government entities running things, everybody's got a boss and you can't get anything done."

In the hours after the storm passed, all along Interstate 10, ambulances, state troopers, National Guard convoys, and Salvation Army trucks rolled steadily east, eventually gathering in a Ford dealership just outside Beaumont.

The three oil refineries in Port Arthur were taken offline before the storm and were running on skeleton crews afterward. None sustained major damage, according to initial reports.

Warren Owens was one of those working feverishly to shut down the Valero refinery before Rita hit. He says he was planning to evacuate, but when his paycheck didn't arrive because of the storm, he didn't have enough money or gas to get out of town. So the rig ironworker rode it out inside his tiny apartment.

"There was a lot of wind wishing around. It sounded like a freight train, and man was it raining. This carport was rocking back and forth," says Mr. Owens.

Standing in front of a washed-out road, Port Arthur Police Officer Randy Moyer says the affected towns are asking people to stay out for a few days while services can be restored and roads cleared.

He says the area emptied in part because everyone had seen the pictures of the chaos that followed hurricane Katrina - and no one wanted to be stuck in the equivalent of the Superdome.

"If it weren't for Katrina, I think most people would have stayed put," says Officer Moyer.

Javier Olivares agrees. His family is stuck at a Conoco station between Beaumont and Port Arthur, waiting for either the gas station to open or the roadblock ahead to be lifted.

When the evacuation order came down, he helped his wife load her 12 parakeets into their sedan before heading north. He wasn't about to be caught in the storm.

"I've never been in a hurricane before, and I believe in learning from other people's experiences," says Mr. Olivares.

Still, not everyone left. Up in Beaumont, James Green is cleaning up his yard after Rita. He and his mother stayed during the storm, and while it was "rocking out here," they never had to resort to taking shelter in the closet. Now, they are without power and living on canned sausages, saltines, and vanilla wafers.

He says they decided to stay for financial reasons - and to avoid the hassle of traffic jams and gas shortages.

"You never know how bad a situation is going to be until you come out of it," says Mr. Green, pulling a piece of corrugated roof from the bed of his truck. "But the nation has had two major hurricanes in [several] weeks, and we will be stronger because of it."

Elsewhere at the time of this writing, some people were still waiting for rescue. Officials believed that hundreds were trapped in isolated coastal pockets of southwestern Louisiana. New Orleans endured continued flooding in its devastated Ninth Ward - flooding that substantially set back recovery efforts.

Utility companies estimated that more than 1 million customers were still without power in the Gulf region. Texas officials were worried that traffic flowing back into Houston would create jams similar to those of last week, when everyone tried to get out.

President Bush urged residents to be careful before deciding that danger from the slow-moving storm had passed.

"The situation is still dangerous because of potential flooding," said Mr. Bush during a visit to the Texas emergency operations center in Austin.

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