Published September 28, 2005
PORT ARTHUR, Texas – Nearly four days after Hurricane Rita (search) hit, many of the storm's sweltering victims along the Texas Gulf Coast (search) were still waiting for electricity, gasoline, water and other relief Tuesday, prompting one top emergency official to complain that people are "living like cavemen."
In the hard-hit refinery towns of Port Arthur and Beaumont, crews struggled to cross debris-clogged streets to deliver generators and water to people stranded by Rita. They predicted it could be a month before power is restored, and said water and sewer systems could not function until more generators arrived.
Red tape was also blamed for the delays.
Port Arthur Mayor Oscar Ortiz (search), whose own home was destroyed by fire after the hurricane, said "we've had 101 promises" for aid, "but it's all bureaucracy." He and other officials gathered at a hotel-turned-command center, where a dirty American flag found among hurricane debris was hung on the wall.
John Owens (search), emergency management coordinator and deputy police chief in the town of 57,000, said pleas for state and federal relief were met with requests for paperwork.
"We have been living like cavemen, sleeping in cars, doing bodily functions outside," he said.
Temperatures climbed into the upper 90s, and officials worried that swarms of mosquitoes might spread disease.
In Beaumont, officials briefed President Bush, Texas Gov. Rick Perry at his side, on relief efforts. Perry cautioned against criticism.
"There's always going to be those discombobulations, but the fact is, everyone is doing everything possible to restore power back to this area," Perry said.
About 476,000 people remained without electricity in Texas, in addition to around 285,000 in Louisiana. About 15,000 out-of-state utility workers were being brought to the region to help restore power.
Residents of some hard-hit towns were allowed to check on their homes but were not allowed to stay because of a lack of generators and ice.
About 2,000 Port Arthur residents who stayed through the storm were advised to find other places to live until utilities are restored. Ortiz said it could be two weeks before people are allowed back into Port Arthur.
After seeing a swarm of ravenous mosquitoes around his storm-battered home in Vidor, Harry Smith and his family decided to leave. They hitchhiked 10 miles to an emergency staging area and got on a bus to San Antonio.
"It can't be any worse than here," said Smith, 49, a pipefitter. "This is the worst storm I've seen in the 46 years I've lived here."
In Louisiana, Calcasieu Parish Police Jury President Hal McMillin said residents who come back would be without air conditioning, and risk insect bites and the mosquito-borne West Nile virus. A mandatory evacuation remained in effect for 10 southwestern Louisiana parishes.
"There's a good chance we could have an outbreak or something," McMillin said.
There were some signs of hope. In a Port Arthur neighborhood not far from a grocery store that reeked of rotten food, three Federal Emergency Management Agency semitrailers delivered ice, ready-to-eat meals and water.
"Without these trucks here, I don't think we would have made it," said Lee Smith, 50.
In Orange, people converged in cars and trucks outside a shopping strip for water, food and ice supplied by the private disaster group the Compassion Alliance.
"I know it's going to take some time, but we really appreciate this," Dorothy Landry, 66, said after waiting in the line. "I can't thank them enough."