Rescuers used boats to take flooded-out residents to safety Monday as Hurricane Rita's waters began to recede along the Texas-Louisiana coast. The death toll climbed to seven when the bodies of five people were discovered in a Beaumont apartment. Early damage estimates for Rita are much lower than expected. VOA correspondents Greg Flakus and Zulima Palacio have been on the ground in Texas covering the hurricane and its aftermath. VOA's Kathie Scarrah narrates our report.

Thousands of residents began returning to Houston and other Texas cities in Rita's path soon after the Category 3 storm hit land early Saturday morning.

But many homeowners, anxious to discover the extent of damage done to their homes were turned away. In Port Arthur, Texas, local officials said they would not allow people to return until they could assess whether it was safe.

Sewer, water and power services were extensively damaged by Hurricane Rita. Damage to oil refineries, drilling platforms and pipelines near Port Arthur and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast was not as severe as expected. Major refineries closed before Hurricane Rita hit.

The closures resulted in a 30 percent cut in U.S. oil production; most are expected to reopen soon. But with little excess refining capacity, analysts say oil prices, now at $64 a barrel, remain vulnerable to even minor disruptions in the global supply.

In Washington Monday, President George W. Bush announced he would open the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to help refineries with crude oil demands and keep prices down. "The storms have shown how fragile the balance is between supply and demand in America. I've often said one of the worst problems we have is that we're dependent on foreign sources of crude oil, and we are."

Mr. Bush encouraged Americans to conserve energy by limiting unnecessary travel. In Louisiana, where the city of New Orleans was just drying out after Hurricane Katrina a month ago, crews dropped sandbags weighing 1300 to 2000 kilograms to shore up breaches in levees surrounding the city.

Even though the city only received five centimeters of rain from Hurricane Rita, some of the levees didn't hold. The result was more flooding on ground already soaked after Hurricane Katrina.

Overall, areas hit by Hurricane Rita were spared the death and devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. David Paulison, the Acting Director of FEMA -- the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- credited an early evacuation for the minimal loss of life. "We know the storm was not as bad as some people predicted it was going to be. But there are people out there who lost everything," said Mr. Paulison.

Michael Pizzuto of Galveston, Texas said he knew it wasn't going to be a bad storm. He feeds the seagulls near his home everyday and watched their movements before he decided to sit out the storm.

He says if the storm were going to be severe, the birds would have disappeared. "Yesterday, there was twice as many seagulls as what you have here, as the storm was coming,? said Michael. ?They would have flown inland. At 100 mile an hour winds, they knew to fly inland."

With another two months remaining in the 2005 hurricane season, Mr. Pizzuto says he'll continue to take his cues about the weather from the birds.