Published September 28, 2005
PORT ARTHUR, Texas – Nearly four days after Hurricane Rita (search) hit, many of the storm's sweltering victims were still waiting for electricity, gasoline, water and other relief. The situation prompted one top emergency official to complain that people are "living like cavemen."
In the hard-hit refinery towns of Port Arthur (search) and Beaumont (search), Texas, 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.
Hurricane Rita victims along the rural Texas Gulf Coast were waiting to see whether their complaints about sluggish federal and state aid result in speedier action in the coming days.
Mayor Oscar Ortiz (search) expressed cautious optimism after meeting with Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday, but said he's still relying more on private companies and individuals than the government as the city struggles to recover.
"I'm just hoping [the government] comes through," Ortiz, whose own home was destroyed by fire after the hurricane, said. "It seems like the larger towns in the news are the ones getting the help."
"We've had 101 promises" for aid, said Ortiz, "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.
Nederland City Manager Andre Wimer said "it's been a terribly frustrating four days" because of problems getting help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (search).
"I can appreciate the difficulty in responding to a disaster that was this widespread but at the same time we certainly feel we've not received a level of service that was satisfactory," he said.
Perry and President Bush surveyed parts of the damaged region Tuesday, asking for patience while federal and state relief makes it way there.
"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 on Tuesday, 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.
Ortiz was blocking residents from returning for three to five days because of a lack of services. The estimated 2,000 people who stayed put during the storm, which made landfall Saturday along the Texas-Louisiana border, face an overnight curfew.
After seeing a swarm of ravenous mosquitoes around his storm-battered home in Vidor, Texas, 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."
After complaining about a sluggish federal response, Port Arthur received 121 small generators Tuesday afternoon. Ortiz planned to give them to emergency personnel first and then to merchants who provide high-demand products such as gasoline, water and food.
"We have been living like cavemen, sleeping in cars, doing bodily functions outside," said John Owens, emergency management coordinator for Port Arthur. "And meanwhile we're the victims, and we have families here."
In a Port Arthur neighborhood not far from a grocery store that reeked of rotten food, three FEMA trailers 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. "I've never left before. I thought it wouldn't be too bad. The good Lord spared us."
In Louisiana, Calcasieu Parish (search) 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.
The White House said complete federal funding for debris removal, emergency protective measures and direct federal assistance was extended through Oct. 27.
Texas Republican Rep. Kevin Brady, whose district includes some of the counties hit by Rita, said he will be developing legislation to provide relief, especially for towns that took in evacuees from Hurricane Katrina.
"While we think much of our help can come through traditional disaster relief programs, we know there will be expenses above and beyond that," Brady said. "We don't want those smaller communities to have sacrificed and not come out whole."
In Orange, Texas, people converged in cars and trucks outside a shopping strip for water, food and ice supplied by the private disaster group the Compassion Alliance (search).
"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."