Rita's eye hit land just east of Port Arthur, leaving 4 feet of water in the industrial city's downtown and blowing out windows in cars and buildings across Beaumont. Falling oaks and pines crushed dozens of homes for more than 50 miles inland, and downed lines left at least 800,000 Texans without power Friday night.
Swirling floodwaters in Louisiana turned barges into battering rams that forced an Interstate 10 bridge to close near Lake Charles, while a levy breach in Abbeville sent rescuers running to boats to reach terrified residents.
Power lines lay across major highways, light poles snapped in two and signs lay twisted across wide areas of both states.
And yet, by largely sparing Galveston and Houston and exiting the state much faster than anticipated, Rita left many evacuees and state officials with an unexpected feeling: relief.
''We should say a prayer of thanks,'' said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. ''It's clearly not as bad as it could have been . . . (but) we need to continue the rescue and recovery effort.''
By nightfall, no deaths had been reported in Texas, a statistic that reassured state officials who have been second-guessed over the massive evacuation of the Texas coast, putting almost 3 million people on highways that proved no match for the traffic.
''The things that were done to prepare and get the word out that this was a killer storm,'' said Everette ''Bo'' Alfred, a Jefferson County commissioner. ''If we don't have any fatalities as a community, we've done the best thing we can possibly do.''
Emergency workers also stressed that it was too early for complacency. Searchers will continue to look for casualties, and residents rushing to return home were reminded that Rita left a dangerous mess behind, including downed power lines and debris strewn over thousands of acres.
''It was a monster,'' said Jack Colley, coordinator of the Governor's Division of Emergency Management, disputing assertions that Texas may have gotten off easy.
After surveying Port Arthur by boat, William Parrott agreed.
''It's not as bad as it could have been, but by no means did they skate by,'' said Parrott, chief of the Texas Air Corps, a private rescue operation.
One death was attributed to Rita in northern Mississippi, where a hurricane-spawned tornado killed one person in Humphrey County.
Delayed by strong winds from the trailing edge of Rita, search-and-rescue teams didn't leave Houston until the afternoon - when they met traffic jams created by residents trying to return home despite official pleas to stay away.
Once they arrived in the storm's path, Texas emergency crews found little rescue work to perform beyond freeing people from homes damaged by falling trees.
Texas Task Force 1, a group of emergency officials from across the state, helped 215 people leave damaged homes from Beaumont to Jasper and from Fred Elementary School, which was serving as a makeshift shelter, spokesman Doc Mills said.
In Jefferson County along the Louisiana border, hundreds of people called emergency numbers seeking help to evacuate.
''Some are stuck. Some are just a matter of, 'I have no power, I have no sewer, I have no water and I'm ready to get out now,' '' said John Johnson with the county emergency operations team. ''Most of the calls are not for reasons of being trapped in their homes. They just want to be out.''
Ninety miles inland, 7-foot waves damaged the rip-rap (a rock buffer) around Lake Livingston Dam, where a 117 mph gust was recorded at 5:45 a.m. The damage forced evacuations downstream after officials began releasing water into the Trinity River as a precaution. Residents in low-lying areas of Polk, San Jacinto and Livingston counties were ordered to leave before the Trinity crests 3 to 5 feet above flood stage by Monday and Tuesday, said Spencer Carr, a spokesman for the Trinity River Authority.
State Rep. Mike Hamilton, R-Mauriceville, said a driving tour of Orange, Hardin and Newton counties revealed about 150 homes rendered unlivable by falling trees or damaged roofs. A similar number of homes will require substantial repairs, he estimated.
''I'll tell you what, it's a mess out there,'' Hamilton said. ''In these rural areas, there are so many trees, as soon as one falls, it blocks a road and snaps a power line, and that's what you see happening.''
Predictions that Rita would stall over northeast Texas, dropping up to 25 inches of rain over a four-day period, proved inaccurate when the storm squirted between two high-pressure ridges and headed into Arkansas.
Instead of being trapped by the two systems, ''the hurricane found a weakness between them,'' said Joe Baskin, a National Weather Service forecaster. ''Now it will bend around to the east and go across northern Mississippi and Alabama, where it is going to drop the most rain if it holds together, which it probably will.''
That's bad news for Dixie but great news for thousands of Houston and Beaumont residents who fled north, only to find themselves in a potentially more dangerous situation.
The heaviest rains Saturday - 12 to 15 inches - were confined to a path no more than 15 miles wide from near Jasper to Shreveport, La., Baskin said. ''Outside of that, probably in a band that's 25 miles wide, about 6 to 8 inches fell,'' he said.
Rita was demoted to a tropical storm by late afternoon, but it was a strong Category 3 hurricane when it came ashore with all the elements of a supremely dangerous event - winds of 120 mph and storm surges of up to 20 feet.
Officials had estimated that 5,700 homes could be destroyed, with damage totaling $8.2 billion. On Saturday, companies that track disaster costs estimated that insured losses from Hurricane Rita would be between $2.5 billion and $6 billion.
The relative lack of damage and casualties can be attributed to where Rita made landfall - the Texas-Louisiana border, which allowed the storm to spend much of its fury on the lightly populated coast of southwest Louisiana.
''If you would've had that same stuff 70 miles southwest of there on Galveston, things would've been a whole lot worse,'' Baskin said. ''Then Galveston would have the main front of the 20-foot surge, and it would have pushed (dangerous storm surges) all up into Galveston Bay and the Houston port area.''
As it was, Galveston lost power to most of the island, which was littered with pieces of roofs, awnings and signs uprooted by the wind. Almost 600,000 Houston customers were still without power Friday night, although city airports sustained only minor damage, allowing airlines to resume flights today.
Port Arthur and Beaumont officials estimate it could be a week before evacuated residents are welcomed back. State troopers Friday blocked every I-10 off-ramp in Jefferson County, preventing traffic from exiting, and 2,500 Texas National Guard troops were dispatched to Beaumont.
''It will be a humongous undertaking to get the infrastructure rebuilt,'' said Beaumont fire-rescue district chief Jeff McNeel.
Irwin Thompson/The Associated Press
Downed power lines rest on Highway 14, in Lake Charles, La., after Hurricane Rita pummeled east Texas and the Louisiana coast Saturday.