In town hit by Hurricane Rita, many are priced out of recovery, feel overshadowed by Katrina
CAMERON, La. – First Baptist Church in this southwestern Louisiana town is finally celebrating its reopening, five years after the community was nearly obliterated by one of the most destructive storms in U.S. history: Hurricane Rita.
It took that long for the church's members to raise money to repair the double dose of damage from Rita and then from Hurricane Ike in 2008. On Saturday, they will sing a theme song they adopted in Rita's aftermath, "Standing on the Promises."
Church treasurer Cyndi Sellers had noticed a hymn book opened to the old Baptist standard in the church's muddy wreckage. "I just really felt like He was promising us right then that we would be able to rebuild if we just had the faith," she said.
Like the church, some coastal communities in Rita's path have faced a slow recovery — and many people have been left behind.
In Louisiana and Texas border towns like Cameron, the people who survived Rita sometimes feel as though their suffering became an afterthought in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which barreled into the Gulf Coast less than a month earlier.
Rita peaked as a Category 5 storm in the central Gulf of Mexico but had weakened to Category 3, with sustained winds of more than 120 mph and a 20-foot storm surge, when it roared ashore near the Texas-Louisiana line on Sept. 24, 2005.
The hurricane was blamed for at least seven deaths in the two states, but the prelude to the storm was even deadlier. More than 100 people died during the chaotic evacuation of Houston, including 23 nursing home patients on a bus that caught fire while stuck in traffic.
Rita left more than $11 billion in damage in its wake. But it was dwarfed by Katrina, which caused an estimated $81 billion in damage.
"We were overshadowed by Katrina," said Ray Miller, whose beachfront home in Holly Beach, La., was flattened by Rita's monster surge. "Everything in the national news was about New Orleans, and you had just as much devastation here."
Cameron had three grocery stores before Rita, but has none today. The drug store is gone. So are one of two banks and one of two gas stations. The town's post office and a restaurant operate out of trailers. Many residents are still living in mobile homes. The town has seen its population shrink from roughly 1,500 to 280 since Rita.
Millions of dollars in federal funding have flowed to the town and the rest of Cameron Parish since Rita, but residents who wanted to rebuild had to comply with new building codes far stricter than the ones in place before the hurricane.
Kirk Burleigh, president of the Cameron Parish Police Jury, said the new flood-elevation requirements and soaring insurance costs priced many of the region's poorest residents out of the rebuilding process.
"You've got to hire an engineer to do the foundation before you can put something on top," he said. "You've got to spend $80,000 in engineering and design to put a $2,000 trailer on it."
Michael Stelly, the police chief and public works director in West Orange, Texas, said Katrina may have overshadowed Rita victims' plight, but it probably saved lives in his city.
"People saw the devastation from Katrina. It was fresh in their minds to evacuate for Rita," he said.
Texas officials also learned a lesson from the botched evacuation of Houston. Before Ike hit, the city's mayor urged most residents, except those in low-lying waterfront areas, to hunker down and ride out the storm to avoid snarling evacuation routes. Those along the bays and channels that empty into the Gulf were ordered to leave.
Some residents are weary of rebuilding.
Holly Beach, a 10-minute ferry ride and a 10-mile drive from Cameron, was a popular spot for summer vacations and weekend getaways for families of modest means. Rita wiped out Ray Miller's house along with everything else in Holly Beach, leaving nothing but slabs and wood pilings jutting from the ground.
Miller and his wife, Kathy, count 24 homes that have been rebuilt in town, down from about 500 structures that Rita claimed. The couple finished rebuilding a mere six months before Ike hit, ripping apart their front porch and flooding the interior of their elevated house.
Kathy Miller can't fathom having to endure a third rebuilding project if another storm hits.
"We need a break," she said. "I can't think about it. I just try to put it out of my mind."
Storms haven't been the only obstacle to recovery in Cameron Parish and other parts of south Louisiana. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill spawned by the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig has exacted a heavy economic toll on a region closely tied to the oil and gas industry.
Ronald Nunez worked as an auto mechanic, fixing cars for the oilfield workers who passed through Cameron on their way offshore. Rita drove away many of his customers, but the spill has cost him even more work. Adding to his woes, Nunez said the Federal Emergency Management Agency wants to charge him $27,000 for the government-issued trailer that has housed his family of six since Ike demolished the trailer he bought after Rita.
"I ain't paying. They're going to have to throw me out," he said. "I don't think it's a fair shake they're giving everybody."
Rita also flooded thousands of homes in Vermilion Parish, in the heart of Cajun country. In the storm's aftermath, towns like Erath were inundated. Planners and architects floated radical ideas to rebuild.
Mayor George Dupuis Jr. said a proposal to move the entire town to higher ground generated an angry backlash from residents.
"We have different people, good Cajun people who have been here for years. You can't make them leave," he said.
Thaunia Hardie, 59, isn't leaving Cameron, even though she feels daunted by the cost of rebuilding here. She opened GG's Cafe in a trailer parked on the footprint of a restaurant that Rita leveled. Constructing a building to house her restaurant would cost at least $500,000, but she can't afford it. Business has been slow with few mouths left in town to feed.
"I attribute that to the rules and regulations that FEMA set being so strict," she said. "Nobody can afford to build down here."