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After Hurricane Rita, another exodus in Texas

The threat of Hurricane Rita prompted a mass evacuation of the southeast corner of Texas. Now the post-Rita evacuation has started.
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The threat of Hurricane Rita prompted a mass evacuation of the southeast corner of Texas. Now the post-Rita evacuation has started.

If the storm's ferocious winds and rain didn't destroy the spirit of the hardiest souls here, the unrelenting 100-degree heat and high humidity -- coupled with the lack of electrical power and nonfunctional water and sewer systems -- have.

"I can't take it anymore," said a sweaty Herb Rhoades, 47, of Nederland, who arrived Tuesday at the disaster relief staging area with a suitcase in hand and his Jack Russell terrier, Harley, in tow. "I thought maybe I could at first."

The latest exodus of evacuees came on a day when President Bush made his second visit to this oil-producing region battered by Rita. He met with local officials including Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), who briefed him on recovery efforts. After a meeting here, the president said, "Obviously, this area is hurting. The governor knows that. I know firsthand how it's hurt."

With the hurricane further crimping the nation's already-tight energy supply, Bush urged Americans to conserve gasoline, and ordered federal agencies to curtail nonessential travel and otherwise save energy by encouraging car pooling and the use of mass transit. At the White House, officials are asking employees to turn down air conditioning and to shut off office equipment at the end of the workday.

Bush tried to set an example Tuesday by reducing his motorcade, eliminating some vans reserved for the press corps, staff and guests. Still, one of the biggest costs of a presidential trip is the $6,029-an-hour cost of flying Air Force One.

Stung by criticism that the federal government was slow to respond in the early aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which coincided with his approval ratings hitting new lows, Bush has made seven trips to areas hit by Katrina and Rita in less than four weeks.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan defended the trips as essential. "The president believes that it's important to get a firsthand account of the operations that are ongoing to provide relief to the people in need, as well as to hear firsthand from state and local officials about the cooperation and the response from the federal government in terms of meeting those needs," he said.

Bush later traveled to Lake Charles, La., where he told reporters that officials have decided to make $2,000 federal payments to victims of Rita, just as they have to those affected by Katrina.

Bush also urged residents not to return to their homes until workers have restored utilities damaged by the storm. "It's very important for them to understand that now is not the time to come back," he said.

Leaving for San Antonio
Many of those who stayed -- or came back before police roadblocks would have kept them away -- have decided to leave after all.

Their only place to go for public shelter: 266 miles away in San Antonio to join the last of the Hurricane Katrina evacuees from Louisiana at Kelly Air Force Base.

And so Rhoades and his dog boarded one of hundreds of chartered buses that have been loading up area residents and leaving every hour since Hurricane Rita struck Texas's Gulf Coast early Saturday morning. By Tuesday, more than 1,000 people had been transported out of town to San Antonio, with little more than a small bag of clothes, a personal care kit handed out by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a brown bag lunch provided by the Salvation Army. At least the bus was air-conditioned.

These latest evacuees are being told they will remain in San Antonio for a week or two. But local officials have said that restoring power after massive outages -- caused by the area's famous huge pine trees toppling onto power lines -- could take four to six weeks. In the meantime, traffic signals are out, hospitals, schools and grocery stores are closed, and only a few gasoline stations, using generators, have opened. Beaumont, a city of 115,000, has no power but does have sporadic water and sewer service. The next-largest city to the south, Port Arthur with 60,000 people, remains dark and dry. Although floodwaters have largely receded, some spots of standing water have provided a breeding ground for hordes of mosquitoes and snakes.

Federal, state and local officials asked residents not to return to the area until basic services have been repaired. Roadblocks are being enforced, although some residents have managed to find back roads to their homes. But that didn't work for Eulalio and Irma Arredondo, who arrived in Port Arthur on Tuesday, out of money and food, after spending two nights at a Houston motel with their four children, including a 4-month-old baby. They were turned away by officers at the entrance to Port Arthur and advised to report here to board the San Antonio bus.

"We don't have family here," said Eulalio Arredondo, who said he and his wife are from Mexico. "We don't have any money left, and we're trying to spend the least we can. We have nowhere else to run."

Snakes in the house
It was the snakes that did in Etonia Alfred, 47, who arrived at the bus depot with her son, Jordan Gray, 4. Although her sister, nephew, brother and father caught buses out of town just before the hurricane hit, she and her son missed the last bus that left from a high school near their home. She rode out the storm, but her house and its contents were destroyed. Jordan's father, Jackie Gray, welcomed them in after the storm, but the lack of electricity and air conditioning and the snakes inside the house were more than Alfred could bear. A big water moccasin raised its head in greeting when she walked into Gray's utility room on Monday.

Gray took her and Jordan to the San Antonio-bound buses and escorted them inside the coach to say goodbye. They exchanged cell phone numbers, and Gray kissed Jordan. "Bye-bye, love," he said. "Bye-bye, baby. Daddy will be here waiting for you when you get back."

Alfred -- who lost her mother in February, lost her home and furnishings and her job at a barbecue restaurant because of the storm, and still has not located her siblings and father since they left town -- put her head in her hands and cried. And now she was headed for a place she'd never been before, San Antonio.

"I don't know what else to do," she said.

Staff writer Michael A. Fletcher in Washington contributed to this report.