Conditions Primitive in Texas After Rita

9-29-05 - The plywood sign outside the home in East Texas where eight Beaumont families had sought refuge from Hurricane Rita carried a simple message: "Help Needed. Ice and Water. 43 People."

The evacuees had no electricity and little water or food after the storm. As temperatures neared triple-digits, adults used paper towels dampened with bottled water to keep children from overheating. A campfire was built to keep mosquitoes away.

"The only thing we could think of to survive was to put out that sign," said Tiffany Moten, 24, who was staying at the home near Livingston. "Luckily, we were blessed, and we have a lot of friendly people who came up and brought us water and ice and things like that. We are trying to make it."

Five days after Hurricane Rita came ashore, conditions remained primitive in parts of Texas, where some residents were taking baths and brushing their teeth using water from the Neches River and others were sleeping in tents.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency delivered ice, water and packaged meals Wednesday to residents who rode out the storm, but some officials in hard-hit areas criticized the agency's response, with one calling for a commission to examine the emergency response.

In Houston, FEMA closed a disaster relief center just hours after its doors opened when some of the hundreds of hurricane victims in line began fainting in the heat. FEMA officials said they were caught off-guard by the roughly 1,500 people who showed up, but said it would reopen the center Thursday morning.

Local officials, including Port Arthur Mayor Oscar Ortiz and Jefferson County Judge Carl Griffith, said FEMA's response has been inadequate.

Griffith said he has asked Gov. Rick Perry to set up a commission to study the emergency response to Rita. Congress is holding hearings this week on the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

FEMA spokesman Ross Fredenburg said communications between Austin and rural East Texas have been troubled, in part because of power problems. But he said FEMA had set up distribution points in 27 southeastern Texas cities.

"I don't know what could have been done better since the materials were in place before the hurricane," Fredenburg said. "We're doing everything we can to get water and ice to whomever remains."

Meanwhile, local officials and volunteers were trying to help residents and evacuees any way they could. In Woodville, Dam-B Volunteer Fire Department Chief Thomas Eller tried to coax elderly residents to leave their homes Wednesday.

"A lot of them don't want to leave, but I don't want to give them a choice," Eller said. "I would rather move them out of here kicking and screaming then have to put them in a (body) bag."

Eller had persuaded Joseph Robinson, 90, and his 75-year-old wife, Wanda, to ride out the storm at the firehouse but they wanted to go home after the storm passed.

"There ain't no place like home," said Joseph Robinson, who has emphysema. "We got winter coming on. We'll have cool weather. We'll be all right."

Farther east in Jasper, Jeff Sargent, vice president of an Arizona-based ambulance company that helped evacuate a Texas nursing home, helped run a makeshift triage center out of a church.

He said it was difficult for many residents, trapped behind miles of downed trees, to get medical care, food or water. So far the triage center has seen about 300 patients and treated everything from heart problems to heat-related illnesses, he said.

Some rural residents said they felt forgotten after the storm.

"They are still stuck on Katrina, and Rita's done some hellacious damage up in these woods," said Sharon Lakey, a 49-year-old Farrsville resident who sat in a long line of vehicles waiting to get gas in Jasper.