Rita's Death Toll Climbs

9-26-05 - Rescuers pushed their way into once-inaccessible neighborhoods as Hurricane Rita's floodwaters receded along the Texas-Louisiana coast Monday. The death toll climbed to seven when the bodies of five people were discovered in a Beaumont apartment.

The five _ a man, a woman and three children _ apparently were overcome by carbon monoxide from a generator they were using after the hurricane knocked out the electricity over the weekend, authorities said.

Rita roared ashore Saturday morning, slamming the refinery towns of Beaumont and Port Arthur, as well as Lake Charles, La., after an epic evacuation that emptied out a large swath of coastline and saved countless lives. Some 3 million people fled from Rita's path after seeing what Katrina did to New Orleans a month ago.

Sen. John Coryn visited Beaumont on Monday, and described it as "still kind of a mess."

"There's quite a bit of wind damage and they've got a problem with electricity and water supply, so they're not encouraging people to come back," he said. If people are "safe where they are and have food and water _ they may not have that here."

Crews with the Federal Emergency Management Agency began leading crews to clear roads of fallen trees and debris so workers with Entergy, the electric utility for southwestern Louisiana and eastern Texas, could began restoring power.

The more than 110,000 people living in Beaumont were urged not to return home, though, since water power and sewer services will not be restored for weeks. Police blocked exits off interstate highways leading to the city, and access to roads leading to Port Arthur and Orange.

President Bush plans to visit the Beaumont-Port Arthur area on Tuesday.

The apartment deaths were discovered Monday morning when a woman went to check on her relatives, Beaumont police spokeswoman Carman Apple said.

When the woman knocked on the door, a 12-year-old girl ran out of the door, vomiting. Inside the apartment were the bodies of three siblings _ a 9-year-old boy, a 7-year-old girl and a 12-year-old girl. Their mother and 8-year-old brother survived, but were hospitalized in critical condition.

A 25-year-old woman identified as the children's aunt also died, as well as her 47-year-old boyfriend. His daughter was the girl who fled the apartment. She is also in critical condition.

Neighbor C. J. Collins said he heard the group return home about 4 a.m. Monday. Initially the generator was running outside the apartment, but he said he overheard them debating over whether to move it indoors so the noise wouldn't bother other neighbors or get stolen.

Meanwhile, authorities say at least 16 Texas oil refineries remain shut down after Rita, which made landfall at Sabine Pass, about 30 miles from Beaumont. A refinery in Port Arthur and one in Beaumont were without power, and a second Port Arthur refinery was damaged and could remain out of service for two to four weeks.

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 monumental gridlock that accompanied the exodus last week.

Traffic was steady back into Houston on Monday, with no visible backups outside the city. Gas stations reported fresh supplies of fuel, and clean up crews were busy moving debris from streets.

Lt. Gen. Robert Clark, joint military task force commander for Hurricane Rita, said he has requested setting up a temporary medical facility at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston to help manage the overflow of medical evacuations from 19 counties.

"I think people expected that they could go to Houston because it has a world-famous medical center, but it's at capacity and they've had to shut down some facilities," Clark said.

They've also has personnel shortages because some medical staff who evacuated the area haven't yet returned, but he wasn't aware of anyone not receiving treatment or medical attention.