Rita Downgraded To Tropical Storm

Rita downgraded to tropical storm

Curfew for hard-hit Lake Charles, Louisiana

Forecasters downgraded Hurricane Rita to a tropical storm Saturday as troops were deployed to deal with damage from its landfall as a Category 3 hurricane near the Texas-Louisiana state line.

The storm hit Lake Charles, Louisiana, hard, with rough wind-whipped waters flooding areas in the city. The mayor announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew. Reports of people trapped in their homes in southern Louisiana prompted requests for helicopter rescue operations. Louisiana and Texas officials said no deaths related to the storm have been reported.

At 2 p.m. ET, Tropical Storm Rita's center was between Shreveport, Louisiana and Lufkin, Texas, moving at about 12 mph with maximum sustained winds near 65 mph. Forecasters expect it to bring torrential rains in the next few days. At 3:30 a.m. ET, Rita's center slammed into the extreme southwest coast of Louisiana near Sabine Pass, Texas, with winds of 120 mph. Minor-to-significant damage and power outages were reported throughout the region, from Galveston, Texas, to Lake Charles.

'It got hit hard'

President Bush was tracking the storm's aftermath Saturday at the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado. "I just had an assessment by [hurricane relief commander, Lt. Gen. Russel] Honore of Lake Charles, Louisiana," Bush said. "It got hit hard. They've got teams on the ground -- beginning to analyze the situation and prepare the necessary response to stabilize the situation and more importantly, save lives there as well."

Louisiana state police estimated that more than 50 roads from Slidell to Lake Charles are closed. State officials said an Interstate 10 bridge over the Calcasieu River in Lake Charles was damaged by barges that broke loose and hit the bridge. Earlier, Honore said there was "significant damage" to Lake Charles' airport and "some of its hangars there, the telephone system, as far as cell towers." The general said he was redeploying 400 troops from New Orleans to Lake Charles to link up with emergency response personnel, as soon as high winds in the area allow safe passage.

The National Guard is shifting nearly 2,400 troops who were providing relief from Hurricane Katrina in Alabama and Mississippi to help with the response to Rita in western Louisiana and eastern Texas. In Texas, Jefferson County Sheriff's department said it was investigating a report that an apartment building may have collapsed near Beaumont. CNN affiliate KBTV reported people may be trapped inside. Texas Gov. Rick Perry ordered evacuees from the city of Beaumont and Jefferson and Orange counties not to return home until officials say it's safe.

"Evacuees who attempt to enter disaster areas will be turned back," said a statement from Perry's office. Rita failed, however, to significantly damage the nation's largest oil refinery and about 200 other facilities near Houston, Texas, according to an official who monitors the region. ( Full story ) It was feared that the storm would hinder the national fuel infrastructure, forcing gasoline and other fuel prices higher.

New Orleans repairs to begin In New Orleans, parts of the Lower 9th Ward were under 8 feet of water Saturday from Rita's heavy rains overnight, said Col. Duane Gapinski of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "It's pretty deep, there are houses where just the roof is exposed. An 8-foot storm surge from Rita on Friday started water to overflow a levee along the city's Industrial Canal. Gapinski said that -- structurally -- the levees held out quite well during Hurricane Rita, and the flooding was a result of overtopping the levee breaches. The repairs made after Hurricane Katrina held, but "the water just got too high," he said.

Waters on the West Bank of the Industrial Canal are about a foot deep and should be pumped out quickly, Gapinski said, but a pump station in the Lower 9th Ward is "out of commission" and will take a while to fix.

 'Big catastrophic mess'

Louisiana's Cameron Parish, a flat marshy area stretching along the coast eastward from the Texas state line, "is going to be a big catastrophic mess," said parish Deputy Sheriff Ron Johnson. "I don't believe we're going to have much left there," said Johnson, who was riding out the storm with the rest of the parish officials in Lake Charles. He said all but a few of the 10,000 residents of the parish evacuated. In Lumberton, Texas, police had to rescue a family trapped in their home when a large tree fell on it. No injuries were reported.

In downtown Galveston, Texas, two historic residences and a commercial building were engulfed in flames. Winds of up to 70 mph fanned the flames and caused a blizzard of blowing embers as firefighters fought the blaze. About four blocks from the fire, a wall of a restaurant collapsed.