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Some Texans felt a gust of guilt and relief in the hours that followed, as Rita wobbled eastward on her path ashore. They knew they did not want to be on the dirty side of a big storm, the eastern wing that tosses tornadoes as she goes. Instead she moved in on the Texas-Louisiana coastline, somehow steering between the major population centers, and managed to avoid most refineries. But Rita was so big and slow, she still caused trouble hundreds of miles in every direction, including Katrina's stomping grounds. In Beaumont, Texas, police patrolled the blacked-out streets in cruisers and on the backs of dump trucks, shotguns ready. "It was really whipping through here last night," said resident Bill Dode. "It was extremely loud, and the house was creaking." Tree branches were poking through some cars' windows and some homes' walls. At one house, a goat was standing on top of a patio table, braying at a window.
In New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin, aware that half his population may never return, had urged people to come back, only to have to turn them around again two days later as Rita approached. Watching Rita hover offshore, the Army Corps of Engineers was worried that the levees could not withstand another blow. The pumps were still operating at only 40%, and while the city was basically dry, some streets were pasted together with poison sludge. Six inches of rain, max, they said, but the levees were already overflowing by Friday morning.
Meanwhile, the city recited its lessons like a chastened schoolboy. Buses were waiting at the Convention Center, along with half a million meals and a field hospital, in case the city endured a replay. A new $4.5 million communications system using military satellites was ready in case the phones went out again. But if the city was wiser, so were the people. They were not counting on anyone else to save them this time. In the French Quarter the Deja Vu strip club was open for business, but just about everything else was closed, and everyone was gone, except the cops, the army, the reporters and the looters. New Orleans and out-of-town police confirmed to TIME that numerous looters and carjackers had been arrested in recent days, some carrying guns and impersonating cops. "They're drifting back in," an officer said--and they're hardly the residents Nagin needs to repopulate his near dead city.
But if New Orleans was a vast urban sacrifice to greater knowledge, at least the experience was being studied at every level. The President had planned to go to Texas on Friday, having spent time earlier in the week in Louisiana and Mississippi. Wouldn't he just get in the way?, reporters asked, which may help explain why the White House misplaced the press corps, inadvertently sending it along to San Antonio while Bush decided to head for Colorado to watch the Northern Command coordinate the federal response. As he got a tour of the facility, he finally found his bullhorn moment. When he came across a 9/11 memorial, including a photograph of him atop the rubble at ground zero, he took out his pen and signed it "May God Bless America, George W. Bush."