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Location: Houston, Texas, United States

My name is David Stone. I live in Houston, Texas. I am a 30-something single white male. I am an Orthodox Christian and am a member of an English-language parish of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR).

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Remember Rita

From today's edition of the Houston Chronicle:

Jan. 25, 2006, 8:04AM

Many in Louisiana and Texas lament Hurricane Rita 'amnesia'


Associated Press

LAKE CHARLES, La. -- A steady procession of congressmen and U.S. senators have visited the Gulf Coast this month, inspecting Hurricane Katrina damage. But they didn't show up here, one of the places devastated by Hurricane Rita, Louisiana's "other" storm.

Four months after Rita caused $4.7 billion in damage, people in southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas say they're concerned the storm has been erased from the country's memory, overshadowed by Katrina's assault on New Orleans. While New Orleanians fret about "Katrina fatigue," people here say they've been victims of "Rita amnesia."

"We don't want anyone to lose sight of the things that have happened to coastal Louisiana because of Rita," said Randy Roach, the mayor of Lake Charles.

Rita hit Sept. 24, one month after Katrina, along the Texas-Louisiana line. Its 120 mph winds and 9-foot storm surge flattened the Louisiana coastal towns of Holly Beach and Cameron, and caused extensive damage further inland, in Lake Charles and Port Arthur, Texas. About 100 died in Texas, including 23 elderly people whose bus exploded during an evacuation.

Like Katrina, Rita was a Category 3 storm that received a lot of attention at the time. Amid fears of Katrina-like chaos, the media zoomed in on the massive traffic jams as people in Houston and southwest Louisiana evacuated northward as the storm approached.

Soon, the country's attention shifted back to New Orleans and Katrina.

"After four or five days of national news coverage, this was not a huge news story anymore," said Guy Goodson, Beaumont's mayor. "We did kind of fell off the radar, and that's a little disarming."

Roach said Katrina has overshadowed Rita for good reason. Katrina wrecked a major U.S. city, killed over 1,300 people and led to widespread looting, plus a bitter political spat between the Republican White House and Democratic Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

But Rita caused destruction very similar to what happened to New Orleans and coastal Mississippi.

Lake Charles, home to 72,000 people, has never had much in common with big city New Orleans. Now, the cities share a landscape of ruined refrigerators and wrecked roofs patched with blue tarps. Port Arthur and Beaumont, Texas, look much the same, Goodson said.

A dusk-to-dawn curfew remains in effect in Cameron, a town of 2,000. Electricity and water service are back, but most homes were washed away or are uninhabitable because of flood damage. People are allowed to move onto their properties if they can; however, the Federal Emergency Management Agency won't provide them with mobile homes until the sewage system is fixed. So few people have moved home.

A bleak drive around Cameron is brightened only by the sight of the occasional house that more or less survived. Rebuilding those homes is made more difficult because Rita destroyed the town's retailers — no place to buy nails, hammers, gasoline, food or drink.

Southwest Louisiana parishes face the same problems as New Orleans, but on a much smaller scale: How to get rid of tons of debris, how to bring evacuated residents back home, how to stop the false rumors that the government will force them to sell their land or bulldoze indiscriminately.
Not all residents are concerned if the rest of the country has forgotten what Rita did to southwest Louisiana.

"We're not complaining about any of that," said Howard Romero, a retired high school principal whose home in coastal Johnson Bayou was swept away by floodwaters.

"But you hear mt spilled milk. We know it's destroyed, it's tore up. We're going to have to rebuild, and that's that we're doing."

But elected officials said Rita amnesia has concrete consequences — the amount of federal relief the area receives.

Congress passed tax relief provisions and other benefits for areas affected by Katrina, but at least six — including debt cancellations, tax credits and tax breaks for those who took in people made homeless by the storms — were not extended to people affected by Rita.

Roach said it can be a delicate matter to make the case for federal assistance for those affected by Rita when so much death and destruction was caused by Katrina, whose victims are also clamoring for help.

"We really don't want to put ourselves in competition with Katrina. I don't think that's appropriate at all," Roach said. "At the same time, we don't want to be overlooked. We just want to make sure our story doesn't get lost."


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