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South Mississippi Living 4/07

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Gulf Coast: Two Years Since Hurricane Rita

Posted: 10:56 AM Sep 24, 2007
Last Updated: 10:56 AM Sep 24, 2007
Reporter: AP

It's been two years since Hurricane Rita swept ashore, leaving a new trail of destruction in parts of the Gulf Coast, and deepening the scars in other places, which had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina only a few weeks earlier.

Rita's worst was concentrated in southwestern Louisiana and eastern Texas; in both states, there is still a long way to go in rebuilding the damage from the storm.

Rita's Category 3 force, with 120-mph winds and a 9-foot storm surge, ruined every structure in the southwestern Louisiana towns of Johnson Bayou and Holly Beach, bringing similar destruction to southeastern Texas.

About 100 died in Texas, including 23 senior citizens whose bus exploded during evacuations.

The storm caused no fatalities in Louisiana, but plenty of property damage in Cameron and Vermilion parishes.

In Louisiana Monday, Gov. Kathleen Blanco is set to mark Rita's anniversary in Westlake and New Iberia, at events meant to highlight one of the lingering problems that has slowed the recovery process: a lack of qualified workers across southwestern Louisiana.

In Cameron, Louisiana, one of the hardest hit places - with the courthouse one of the only buildings not flattened by Rita - nearly all of the town's 1,000 residents still live in temporary housing.

Before Rita, there were twice as many people living in Cameron. Those that still do are pushing through more difficult circumstances that before the hurricane.

The post office operates out of a trailer. So does the only bank in town. There is no grocery, pharmacy or hospital; a rebuilt $23 million hospital is set to open in Cameron this fall with 20 beds.

Residents must drive 50 miles north to Lake Charles to buy supplies, on a two-lane highway that cuts through the region's marshland.

"It's not like it was before the storm, that's for sure," says Darlene Dyson, who makes a living by selling shrimp from a trailer, picks up her 7-year-old son at the end of the day for the trip back to their home - in another trailer.

Fast Facts
In Texas, Rita damaged about 80,000 properties in 22 counties. Two years later, records show that the state has spent less than 1 percent of the federal money allotted to fix or replace thousands of ruined homes.
Those who have moved back, or plan to, have complaints similar to those of residents hit by Hurricane Katrina: the process of moving home is stymied by disputes with property insurers and paperwork from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Marvin Trahan, 46, a native, is hoping a lawsuit against his insurer will be settled this year so he can move back. The storm destroyed his three-bedroom house. He now lives in Lake Charles but wants to build a smaller, replacement house on his property in Cameron.

Trahan said the pull of his hometown lies in its small-town peacefulness, plus its proximity to prime hunting and fishing areas.

"You can fish here, you can hunt here, you can do whatever you want," Trahan said. "You can leave your door unlocked all night without worrying about somebody coming in. It's just a great place to live."

It's not, however, a great place to own a motel.

Anil Patel, owner of the Cameron Motel, used to have 96 rooms. Half washed away during the hurricane. Today, the majority of his remaining 51 rooms usually sit vacant. Patel said he and his wife - who live in a trailer next to the motel - are struggling.

"I hope things pick up. But I don't know," he said.

In all, there were $5.8 billion in property insurance claims in Texas and Louisiana, according to a Texas insurance group. In Texas, the storm resulted in 220,641 insurance claims that totaled $2.8 billion, said the Insurance Council of Texas. In Louisiana, there were 201,157 claims totaling $2.6 billion, the group said.

In Texas, Rita made landfall near Sabine Pass on Sept. 24, 2005, it damaged about 80,000 properties in 22 counties of Southeast Texas. Some 15,000 homes were left in need of repairs.

Records show that the state has spent less than 1 percent of the federal money allotted to fix or replace thousands of ruined homes.

East Texas officials, whose counties were among those hit hardest after Rita roared ashore with 120 mph winds, say the state government has been slow to release funds. But state officials blame strict federal rules and argue that Texas received less money than Louisiana and Mississippi.

"It really appears to me that the state has had an overabundance of caution to prevent fraud and abuse," Walter Diggles, executive director of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments. "Every time we talk to them they say, 'Look, we don't want a Katrina,' or fraud with individual distributions."

Texas was awarded more than a quarter-billion dollars in two separate federal housing assistance installments.

So far, the state and the three regional councils of governments it enlisted have disbursed less than $200,000 of the federal housing assistance, according to figures released Sept. 13 in a report from the Texas Housing and Community Affairs Department. And more than $210 million remains untouched while Texas looks for a private contractor to do the repairs or rebuilding. The report was detailed in stories published Sunday in the Houston Chronicle and Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Thirteen households had been assisted out of 423 that have qualified for help. Another 4,012 applicants are on state waiting lists for home repairs, according to the report.

Beth Anderson, chairwoman of TDHCA's governing board, said she's confident that one year from now the agency will have "delivered substantially the $40 million" awarded to Texas in the first installment.

In the meantime, residents are waiting and dealing with more damage.

Evie McBride, 72, wonders whether how long she'll be living in a Federal Emergency Management Agency travel trailer. Her home, a doublewide on the little piece of backwoods, remains in musty shambles since Rita struck.

"I tell you what is frustrating, is seeing a house that would have cost $5,000 to fix 30 days after the storm, will now cost $30,000 to fix because it's just steadily deteriorating," said Keith Billingsley, an inspector for the Deep East Texas COG.

Reported on WIBW-TV in Topeka, Kansas, on Setpember 24, 2007.

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