For the storm-shattered Gulf Coast, the images were all too familiar: Tiny fishing villages in splinters. Refrigerators and coffins bobbing in floodwaters. Helicopters and rescue boats making house-to-house searches of residents stranded on the rooftops.
But as the misery wrought by Hurricane Rita came into clearer view -- particularly in the hard-to-reach marsh towns along the Texas-Louisiana line -- the lasting signs that emerged a day after the storm's 193kph landfall were of an epic evacuation that saved countless lives, and of destruction that fell short of the Katrina-sized fears.
"As bad as it could have been, we came out of this in pretty good shape," Texas Governor Rick Perry said after taking a helicopter tour on Sunday.
Even with nearly 1 million in the region without electricity, some coastal towns flooded to rooftops and the prospect of nearly 3 million evacuated residents pouring back onto the highways for home, the news was overwhelmingly positive.
Petrochemical plants that supply a quarter of the nation's gasoline suffered only a glancing blow, with just one major plant facing weeks of repairs. The reflooding in New Orleans from levee breaks was isolated mostly to areas already destroyed and deserted, and could be pumped out in as little as a week. And contrary to dire forecasts, Rita and its heavy rains moved quickly north as a tropical depression instead of parking over the South for days and dumping a predicted 64cm of torrential rains.
Deaths were minimal -- with only two reported so far -- largely because residents with fresh memories of Katrina heeded evacuation orders and the storm followed a path that spared Houston and more populous stretches of the coast.
Along the central Louisiana coastline, where Rita's heavy rains and storm-surge flooding pushed water up to 2.7m in homes, weary evacuees slowly returned to see the damage. Staring at the ground, shoulders stooped, clearly exhausted, many came back with stories of deer stuck on levees and cows swimming through seawater kilometers from the Gulf of Mexico.
"All I got now is my kids and my motorhome," said Tracy Savage, whose house in rural Vermilion Parish was 1.2 meters underwater. The 33-year-old diesel technician was able to salvage a toolbox and a few life vests, but not much more.
"We've never had this much water, we've just never seen it," Savage said.