Blown Away

Remember Hurricane Rita? If only the federal government did.

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

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