September 24, 2005 09:00 AM

Hurricane Rita pounded the Gulf Coast early Saturday morning, delivering 120-mph winds, a 20-foot storm surge and more than two feet of rain, according to the National Hurricane Center.

By Sunday, Rita was downgraded to a tropical depression, CNN reports, and damage was “not as severe as we expected,” said David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. There were no reported deaths, but there were calls for helicopter rescue missions in southern Louisiana, where people were trapped in their homes. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said as many as 250 people had been rescued, but that 1,000 more still needed assistance.

The National Guard is shifting nearly 2,400 troops in Alabama and Mississippi over to western Louisiana and eastern Texas to deal with the fallout from Rita. Houston Mayor Bill White and Texas Gov. Rick Perry urged residents not to try to return home yet, but some did anyway, causing several traffic jams, The New York Times reported.

More than 1 million customers in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi were without electricity through the weekend. In Houston, local station KHOU-TV reported several fires in and around the city, as well as in Galveston – though the cities were spared the direct hit that initially had been feared.

“It looks like the Houston and Galveston area has really lucked out,” Max Mayfield, director of the hurricane center, told the Associated Press.

The hurricane’s heaviest rains – up to 3 to 4 inches an hour – fell on Lake Charles, La., which had already received 8 inches of rain two hours before Rita hit land, National Weather Service meteorologist Patrick Omundson told AP.

As Rita forced her way toward land, a seven-foot storm surge pushed waters from Lake Pontchartrain over a repaired levee into New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward – the impoverished area that nearly a month ago had been buried under 20 feet of water by Hurricane Katrina. By Saturday morning, the water level there was reported to have returned to waist level.

“Our worst fears came true,” said Maj. Barry Guidry, a National Guardsman on duty in the Ninth Ward. Another levee could not protect homes in the Gentilly neighborhood, which also took a heavy hit by Katrina and is now newly soaked by 6 to 8 inches of water.

Fearing a deadly repeat of Katrina, as many as 3 million people heeded the call to evacuate Rita’s path over the past few days. In Louisiana, Gov. Blanco said over 90 percent of residents in southwestern parishes, about 150,000 people, had fled.

For the latest updates on the location of Rita, the National Weather Service’s National Hurricane Center has information at

Three buildings burn in downtown Galveston, Texas.

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