Blown Away

Remember Hurricane Rita? If only the federal government did.

June 2006By Comments

The story should be familiar by now. A major hurricane strikes the Gulf Coast. The president pledges aid. Web sites announce how victims can get relief. But the aid doesn’t materialize. The White House is indifferent. FEMA, the much-maligned Federal Emergency Management Agency, is incompetent. Stricken cities and their residents are left to wonder how they will recover, whether life will ever be the same.

As everybody knows, this is the story of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans. But few know, or care, that it is also the story of Hurricane Rita and southeast Texas. Nine months after the storm swept ashore just east of the Texas-Louisiana border, crossed the Sabine River near Port Arthur, and cut a swath of devastation deep into the Piney Woods, this high-unemployment, low-income region has received minimal help from the federal government—not for small businesses, many of which remain closed; not for local governments, which are still waiting to be reimbursed for the costs of evacuations and cleanups; and not for residents, many of whom live in substandard dwellings beset with leaky roofs and mold. When Congress passed a $29 billion supplemental appropriations bill in December, it allocated more than $11.5 billion for relief from hurricane damage. Some $6.2 billion went to Louisiana. Another $5 billion went to Mississippi. Texas’ share was $74.5 million. And of this promised pittance, the state has yet to see a single penny.

Rita is the forgotten storm. The epic agony of New Orleans has erased the memory of the other devastating hurricane from the national consciousness—and from Washington’s conscience. Community leaders have made countless trips to Congress, only to return home empty-handed. They do not begrudge Louisiana and Mississippi the aid they have received—well, maybe a little bit—but they do wonder why their plight has been ignored.

I went to Jefferson County in April to see the storm damage for myself. After all this time, I didn’t expect to find much, but the evidence was everywhere as I drove through Beaumont: piles of debris, mostly tree limbs and building materials that had been torn from rain-damaged houses, although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers trucks left town long ago; thousands of roofs covered by the telltale blue tarpaulin distributed by FEMA through the Corps; smashed storefronts of gas stations and restaurants and car washes that may never reopen; placards along major thoroughfares with phone numbers of firms offering to do construction work. Port Arthur, twenty miles closer to the ocean, was much worse off. Here I saw a small strip shopping center that had been demolished by the wind, its roof peeled back as if by a giant can opener. Uprooted trees were more common than in Beaumont, and many of those that remained upright had been maimed, shorn of their giant limbs on one side, leaving half a canopy. Sabine Pass, a community of around six hundred people that is separated from the rest of Port Arthur by eleven miles of coastal prairie, had been all but wiped off the map by flooding, most of its modest homes damaged beyond repair. Across the highway, improbably, stood an impeccable, brightly painted fire station. Had FEMA shown up with some aid after all? Not a chance: The firehouse had been the beneficiary of a recent visit by ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

“This area was really hit by two hurricanes, Katrina and Rita,” Chester Jourdan told me. Jourdan is the executive director of the Southeast Texas Regional Planning Commission, which makes him the coordinator for local governments in emergencies like hurricanes. “There were twenty-seven thousand Katrina victims in our community when Rita hit. Our social service agencies had exhausted their funds to help them. Our churches had given their building funds away. When Rita hit, we couldn’t help our own people.”

Jourdan is no fan of the federal bureaucracy. “FEMA is supposed to provide blue tarp and contractors,” he said. “We got the tarp but no contractors. FEMA is supposed to provide ice. There was a big debate about who was responsible. We had to find it ourselves. The Salvation Army came through. FEMA sent an information officer who had been on staff for two weeks. I knew more than he did. When we needed something, like generators, we’d get one of two answers: ‘I’ve got to check’ or ‘What’s your mission number? I don’t go to the bathroom without a mission number.’ Then we’d fax our request to one center, and it would be faxed to another and another. It took FEMA five to seven days to respond. And don’t even get me started on the Small Business Administration. Homeowners can’t qualify for FEMA aid unless they’re turned down by the SBA. But the SBA was so overwhelmed by Katrina that they had to hire thousands of loan specialists. All they’ve done is Katrina. We’re way down on the list.” Nor was the national Red Cross any help. “That was an eye-opening experience,” he said. “If you want help for a shelter, they won’t do anything if it’s not an official Red Cross shelter. They were going to give out debit cards to people who had been displaced. The cards didn’t have any money on them.”

Well, what about the White House? Surely a president from Texas could help, right? “The greatest hindrance southeast Texas has had is the administration,” Mark Viator, the chairman of the Southeast Texas Recovery Commission and the minister of a Beaumont Baptist church, told the local press club recently, citing the failure of the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide housing aid. The politics at work are clear: Having fumbled the ball during Katrina, the Bush administration is going to do whatever it takes, because its every move is under intense media scrutiny. The media don’t care about Rita. To make matters worse, Louisiana is in play in the 2008 elections, and Texas is not. So Republican strategists don’t care about Rita either.

If the executive branch has been incompetent and inattentive, Congress has been downright hostile. “They’re tired of hearing about hurricanes,” Jourdan told me. Everybody from Texas who is trying to pry money loose has heard the story of how Senator Christopher Bond, of Missouri, upon being told how Texas had incurred major costs in education and criminal justice by taking in Katrina evacuees, accused the state of trying to profit from being a good neighbor. (“I felt like saying, ‘If you think we’re profiting so much, we’ll send you twenty thousand Katrina victims so Missouri can profit too,’” Jourdan told me.)

Pinchpenny politicians view Texas as a rich state, but the opposite is true. The median income for a four-person family in Texas has risen above the national average only once in the state’s history, during the oil boom of the seventies and early eighties. For fiscal year 2006, Texas’s median family income stands at $54,554—16 percent below the national average of $65,093 and lower than all but nine states, including Louisiana and Mississippi. This is important because FEMA uses median income data to determine the extent to which it will reimburse states and local communities for costs incurred from hurricanes. For Katrina, FEMA will reimburse 100 percent of the costs. For Rita’s damage in Louisiana, FEMA will reimburse 90 percent. For Rita’s damage in Texas, FEMA will reimburse only 75 percent.

Of all the shortcomings of the federal response to Rita, this discrepancy is the cruelest. It reveals the truth: New Orleans matters, politically and emotionally, and southeast Texas doesn’t. But the consequences will not go away. Consider the plight of Port Arthur, where the median family income is a mere $32,143—less than half the national average. Perpetually strapped for funds, the city has cut its bureaucracy by more than a third over the past twenty years. Rita left at least five hundred uninhabitable dwellings that have to be removed and more than $3 million in unreimbursed expenses. The difference between 75 percent and 90 percent is more than $1 million, a huge figure for a financially impoverished city. And Port Arthur isn’t the only place facing a fiscal crisis; deeper into the Piney Woods, Jasper and Newton counties are close to bankruptcy.

Even the hurricane experts are aligned against southeast Texas. Anyone in Beaumont will tell you, based on anecdotal evidence, that a strong category 3 storm, maybe even a 4, hit the region and the city, spawning up to 350 tornadoes and maximum winds of 137 miles per hour at the Beaumont airport. But the National Hurricane Center sees things differently. “All available data suggests that many areas in extreme southeastern Texas experienced Category 1 hurricane conditions … and a few areas experienced Category 2 … with Category 3 … being confined to a very small area east of the eye along the immediate coast of extreme southwestern Louisiana” reads the center’s final report on the storm, which was released in March. The report puts the maximum winds at Beaumont at 80.5 miles per hour and the number of tornadoes in East Texas at zero. No one I talked to gave the report any credibility.

In early May U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison was pushing for Texas to receive $350 million for expenses associated with Katrina evacuees and a 90 percent FEMA reimbursement rate. But new White House chief of staff Josh Bolten has given no indication that he supports Hutchison’s proposal; the best-case scenario is that Texas will have to fight hard to get anything, much less the $2 billion Governor Rick Perry is seeking.

Suppose we don’t get the money? What will that mean for southeast Texas? Housing is the biggest crisis. An estimated 39 percent of the homes in Jefferson County are uninsured. Blue-tarp roofs have a life expectancy of around six months—and six months ended in March. Without aid from FEMA, residents with damaged homes cannot hire workers to repair them. Without roof repairs, some houses will be lost to rain and mold damage, further diminishing the housing stock. Jim Rich, the president of the Greater Beaumont Chamber of Commerce, told me that the petroleum industry has $8 billion to $10 billion in new projects planned in the next few years, including a refinery and three liquefied natural gas terminals. These are huge projects with many jobs, but will the projects go forward if there is no assurance that workers will be available? Farther north, the timber industry and individual landowners face losses of up to 60 percent of their trees. Timber holdings represent the main tax base of most of the school districts, whose budgets are expected to take a significant hit.

Have I mentioned that another hurricane season is about to begin?

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