Rita leaves US with $6bn clean-up bill and fuel crisis

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The Independent US

Already struggling with soaring energy prices, the US is facing further fuel and petrol shortages in the wake of Hurricane Rita - even though the storm proved far less devastating to the Gulf region, the heart of the US oil industry, than Katrina four weeks ago.

Key installations around Houston, America's oil capital, appear to have escaped largely unscathed, as Rita veered to the east in the 24 hours before it made landfall early on Saturday.

The hurricane, which hit the coast with winds of up to 120mph, left a million people without power, caused widespread flooding and destruction - and left a clean-up bill likely to top $6bn (£3.4bn). But that is a pittance compared to the $40bn of insured damage from Katrina, which killed more than 1,000 people.

Remarkably, not a single death had been directly attributed to Rita yesterday. "We didn't get the 'down-to-the-foundations' devastation you saw in Mississippi after Katrina," said Rick Perry, the Texas Governor.

There were indirect fatalities, however. A Mississippi woman was killed by a tornado spawned by the storm, following the deaths of 24 residents of a Houston nursing home who died in a bus fire as they were being taken to safety on Friday.

Relieved state and local authorities said the minimal death toll was largely due to the evacuations they had ordered before the storm struck. From Galveston and Houston the west, to the Cajun swamplands of south-western Louisiana, the coast had become a virtual ghost land as the storm drew near.

In Port Arthur, an oil city of 57,000 people and the home town of rock legend Janis Joplin, almost everyone took the advice to evacuate. The police and city manager's office set up shop at a Holiday Inn two miles from the centre of town, which was under five feet of water in some areas.

"I guess we'll be able to go back on Tuesday," said Steve Fitzgibbons, the city manager. As he spoke in the hotel's unlit lobby, a sheriff wearing a bullet-proof vest and carrying a shotgun left the building to patrol against looters. By yesterday, several had been arrested, forcing police to set up a makeshift jail in the hotel bar.

In the town itself, many streets were impassable, because of fallen trees and power lines. In some places, there was the odour of leaking gas. Few buildings were unscathed. Some houses had their roofs peeled off, motels had walls torn away and billboards and debris were strewn across highways. Even so, "it could have been a lot worse," Mr Fitzgibbons declared.

The hardest hit area was the low-lying Cajun country across the border in Louisiana, where teams were searching for people in need of rescue. But in Louisiana too, Rita's punch did not match up to the fears beforehand.

In New Orleans, officials were confident that weakened levees which were breached again as the city felt the effects of Rita could be repaired quickly. The affected areas moreover were empty of people, and most of the flooded homes would have had to be razed anyway. Yesterday Mayor Ray Nagin was again urging inhabitants to re-turn to dry parts of the city.

Logistically, the region's biggest challenge was to secure an orderly return to the Houston area of the 2.7 million people who made a chaotic exodus last week. People were streaming back to America's fourth largest city, ignoring appeals by Mr Perry and President Bush not to return until the city services were fully restored.

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