December 18 08:19 AM
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Gulf Coast lurches back to life after Rita



HOUSTON (Reuters) - Parts of the U.S. Gulf coast lurched back to life after Hurricane Rita on Monday, although many areas remained buried under rubble or water after the onslaught of a second major storm in less than a month.

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Evacuees streamed back into Houston, the fourth-largest U.S. city, although shops were low on bread, milk and other perishables, power outages continued, and gasoline supplies remained spotty.

Roland Moreno, a maintenance man who returned to work in Houston on Monday after evacuating to Central Texas town of Lampasas, said the sparse supplies were a concern.

"I did the right thing," he said of getting out of the way. "I just worry about getting food."

The Rita-related death toll jumped to six on Monday, when five people were found dead in an apartment in Beaumont, Texas, from breathing carbon monoxide from an electric generator, District Chief Jeff McNeel of the Beaumont Fire Department said. One person had earlier been killed in a tornado.

In Washington, President George W. Bush said about 1.8 million barrels per day in Texas and Louisiana refining capacity shut by Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Katrina, which struck in late August, would be back on line soon.

And he repeated that he was prepared to loan crude oil to refineries from the government's emergency stockpile, to ease shortages related to the storms.

BACK TO THE CITIES

A line of cars was trying to get back into New Orleans, which was decimated after Hurricane Katrina and partly flooded again by Rita. New Orleans authorities said residents were being allowed back into the Algiers neighborhood, and business owners were allowed back to other areas that had not flooded.

Mayor Ray Nagin's office warned those returning not to drink or bathe in the city's water, except in Algiers, and not to expect medical services.

In Houston, Mayor Bill White urged grocery stores, gas stations and transit lines to get their employees back and working as quickly as possible as the region's population swelled toward normal levels.

Dr. David Persse, head of emergency medical services in Houston, urged residents to use hospitals sparingly because of an influx of patients evacuated from the east.

"Hospitals operating through this entire operation are really filled to the gills," Persse said.

Over 2.5 million people fled the Texas and Louisiana coasts to safety from Rita, one of the most intense hurricanes recorded over the Gulf of Mexico before coming ashore on the Texas-Louisiana border with 120 mph (193 kph) winds.

Houston was spared the worst, but more than a half-million homes in southeast Texas remained without power.

NOWHERE NEAR NORMAL

Life was nowhere near normal in the strike zone on either side of the state line.

Alcide "Joe" Boudwin said his heart sank when he saw the twisted ruins of what had been his home in Louisiana's bayou.

"My trailer's buckled ... and I don't have a drop of insurance, bro," said Boudwin, 56, a former bar owner and shrimper now retired after suffering heart problems.

Heavy winds in east Texas collapsed some walls, tore roofs and left power lines dangling everywhere. In Louisiana, Rita brought similar wind damage, plus a 15-foot (5-meter) water wall that surged some 35 miles inland.

Search and rescue continued in devastated rural areas, even though Rita was less severe and its aftermath without the chaos and despair that followed Katrina.

In addition to the six deaths, 23 elderly Texans perished in a bus fire near Dallas during the evacuation on Friday. Katrina killed more than 1,000 people.

The Pentagon said soldiers and Marines had rescued about 1,000 people in flooded coastal areas of southwest Louisiana in the past 24 hours.

The military's success in those rescues and helping restore order after Katrina had the Defense Department wondering if the 1878 law restricting use of troops for domestic purposes needs to be tweaked. Bush had said on Sunday that Congress should consider giving the military a lead role in responding to natural disasters.

"I think it is something that deserves a close look," Pentagon spokesman Brian Whitman said.

INSURED LOSSES, ENERGY CONCERNS

California-based Risk Management Solutions estimated Rita's insured losses would be $4 billion to $7 billion, including up to $2 billion in insured damage to offshore energy facilities.

That figure did not include any new damage in New Orleans, where Rita caused a levee breach. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the break was patched and pumping had begun.

Vice Adm. Thad Allen, head of the Katrina federal recovery efforts, said it could take until June to rebuild the levees.

Katrina's price tag has been set around $60 billion.

The energy industry, reeling from Katrina, was poised for a quick recovery from Rita, although two large refineries in Port Arthur, Texas, faced possible four-week outages and two others were damaged.

Energy traders appeared relieved by early news from the oil patch. Crude futures were down 69 cents to $63.45 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange on Monday morning, and unleaded gasoline futures were down 9 cents a gallon.

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