La., Texas Towns Recovering Slowly 2 Years after Hurricane Rita

September 25, 2007

Cameron, La., and Weirgate, Texas, have something in common: both are recovering slowly two years after Hurricane Rita blew through them in September 2005.

According to Associated Press reports, nearly everyone in Cameron still lives in temporary housing and in Texas, the state has spent less than 1 percent of the federal money allotted to fix or replace thousands of ruined homes.

Rita struck two years ago on Sept. 24 as a Category 3 storm whose 120-mph winds and 9-foot storm surge ruined every structure in the southwestern Louisiana towns of Johnson Bayou and Holly Beach. It brought 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 all, there were $5.8 billion in property insurance claims in Texas and Louisiana, according to a Texas insurance group.

In Cameron, the parish courthouse is one of the few buildings that survived Rita. It was a town of about 2,000 residents. Local officials estimate today’s population at about half that.

Those who have moved back, or plan to, have complaints similar to those of residents hit by Hurricane Katrina: the process of returning home is stymied by disputes with property insurers and paperwork from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Living in Cameron is especially difficult because no grocery stores or pharmacies have opened since the storm. Residents must drive 50 miles north to buy supplies.

Few elderly residents have returned, partly because Cameron still has no hospital. In emergencies, ambulances must drive to a medical center in Lake Charles. A rebuilt $23 million hospital is set to open in Cameron this fall with 20 beds.

One bright spot in Cameron’s recovery is the Ice House Bar, which is thriving since it opened across the street from the courthouse early this year, in one of the few new buildings that isn’t temporary. The tavern has pool tournaments every week, while patrons take to the dance floor when country and Cajun bands are playing.

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.

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

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.

The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, which was assigned control of the money, has to follow rigorous federal guidelines to ensure taxpayers aren’t defrauded, officials said. Those include income certification and environmental clearances, said TDHCA Executive Director Michael Gerber.

Mississippi and Louisiana disbursed more than $4.5 billion between them. But that’s because both states received more resources and its officials have been writing up to $150,000 checks to individuals, Gerber said.

Each state develops its own disaster recovery plan, said Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for the federal Housing and Urban Development Department. Texas opted to work directly with contractors for the housing work rather than give money to people without supervision.

State officials knew Texas would have to follow congressionally mandated requirements for using federal funds for housing rehabilitation, Sullivan said.

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.

Information from: Fort Worth Star-Telegram,

Information from: Houston Chronicle,

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