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Recovery Beginning in Areas Affected by Hurricane Rita

Rescue and relief operations continue in the southeastern Texas cities of Beaumont and Port Arthur, as well as areas of western Louisiana where Hurricane Rita left a path of destruction and flooding. Outside that area, residents are cleaning up and starting to return to normal life. Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to come back to the Houston area in the next three days.

After the largest evacuation in U.S. history, officials here are trying to coordinate an orderly return to Houston and other areas along the coast. Nearly three-million people jammed highways leading north and west to get out of the area, as Hurricane Rita approached last week.

Now officials have a plan whereby evacuees can return in a staggered fashion, starting with the areas least affected by the storm, and continuing through mid-week to the areas farther south and east, like the island city of Galveston.

Residents of the towns of Beaumont and Port Arthur, however, may not be able to return to their homes for a couple of weeks, since there was extensive damage there. Crews are busy trying to restore such basic services as power, water and sewage systems, and some areas remain flooded.

In Houston, Mayor Bill White says the burden of recovery is now shifting from the relief crews to the ordinary citizens who provide the most basic products for normal life in a modern city.

"If you work in a gasoline station, if you work in a convenience store, if you are a jobber, if you work in a grocery store, then you need to show up for work," White says. "We have contacted the major refiners and oil companies. There is some fuel available in tankers, but they cannot deliver it, if you are not there. Your fellow citizens are counting on you to show up for work today."

Energy companies in this area and in southwestern Louisiana say damage to refineries and oil and gas production facilities was not as bad as first feared. Normal operations could be underway in a matter of days in all but a few places. One exception will be the Valero corporation's 255-thousand-barrel-a-day refinery in Port Arthur, which company officials say suffered significant damage that will take at least two weeks to repair.

The rapid recovery of the energy industry in the Gulf region is important for the United States, since more than a quarter of the nation's refined oil products come from this region. Some refineries damaged earlier this month by Hurricane Katrina are still struggling to get back in operation, and even some of those that have resumed operations are not running at full capacity.

Energy experts say the disruptions caused by the two hurricanes should prompt government officials to devise a plan to distribute some refining capacity to other areas of the country.

Although the evacuation of the Texas Gulf coast threatened by Hurricane Rita was successful, it was not as smooth as officials had wanted. A state plan to provide fuel along evacuation routes proved inadequate, and many motorists were stranded when their vehicles ran out of gasoline.

Traffic jams along major highways also slowed rescue and recovery efforts in some places. Police had to intervene at some gas stations where altercations broke out between tired, frightened and frustrated people sitting in long lines for hours under the hot sun at gas stations.

The stop-and-go crawl of traffic also caused numerous vehicle breakdowns and accidents. South of Dallas Thursday, a fire broke out on a bus carrying elderly patients from a Houston rest home, resulting in the death of 24 people.