Texas counties still in need from Rita

More than 1,500 cases remain open in four eastern counties.

BY HEATHER MOYER | LIVINGSTON, Texas | June 18, 2007


Hurricane Rita damaged thousands of homes when it struck in September 2005. Thousands of residents remain in need.
Credit: FEMA

Long-term recovery organizations in four east Texas counties are handling more than 1,500 cases of people still in need from Hurricane Rita in 2005.

The organizations are working in Jasper, Newton, Polk and Tyler counties.

When one long-term recovery organization covering Jasper and Newton counties disbanded due to lack of funds, its remaining 500 or so cases went to the Deep East Texas Council of Governments. That added to the caseload the council already had from the two counties.

"We've got 1,500 from just those two counties alone," said Walter Diggles, the council's executive director.

Diggles estimated that many of those cases may be people just looking for a handout, but said a good amount remain from people who were in serious need.

"Much of the damage was escalated and made worse because of a lack of attention to it," he said. "If you had a small repair at first and you didn't get it done, now there's more internal damage. The costs escalate."

The Tyler County Long Term Recovery Committee has some 200 cases remaining from Rita, and committee director Crisp Williams said he was worried about securing funding for those still in need.

"We've really struggled up here in the northern counties," said Williams, noting that counties along the coast have moved more quickly in the Rita recovery. "There is more population down there, but our needs were nearly as bad as theirs. People don't think we need much help here, but we really do."

Williams said the greatest need was money and was grateful for the help received from national organizations. The committee received a grant from the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee and has hosted volunteer work teams from Baptist and United Methodist churches. The agency has been able to assist and close more than 150 cases with the help of its member organizations, he said.

Williams added that many of the cases have been submitted to the Deep East Texas Council of Governments in order to receive funding from federal grants that the council is helping distribute.

Diggles said that while the first round of those community block grants was underway, the process was very slow and not everyone will receive funding due to eligibility requirements.

"Of those amongst our cases with hurricane damage, the grants will probably only take care of 15 to 20 percent of them," he said. "The balance of those will probably be left to the (long-term recovery committees). We're encouraging the public to support those committees and organizations helping those who are not eligible."

Williams said that outside help was crucial since Tyler County is rural and many of those trying to help are themselves also recovering.

"We can't get people to understand this, all these little churches had so many people that were affected that most of their work went to their parishioners off the bat and they were overwhelmed," Williams said. "Our churches are involved up to their shoulders helping their own people. Some have also done their own work without help from anyone."

Some residents came forward for help after they saw their neighbors getting help from the Tyler County recovery group, he said. He added that many others still have not sought assistance.

Hundreds of families in Polk, Tyler, Jasper and Newton counties remain in Federal Emergency Management Agency travel trailers. Getting those families into permanent housing has been a challenge for the committees.

Housing is not only an issue for residents, but also for incoming volunteers. The Polk County Long-Term Recovery Committee has yet to find space to house volunteer work teams.

"We haven't been able to get many volunteers yet," said Willard Moody, committee chairman.

Moody said he has two cases that need immediate assistance with their roofs and another 17 with significant needs. Beyond that, he said he knows there are more cases out there.

"I know there are families out there not yet asking for help based on the number of FEMA trailers still in the county," he said. "I know they're having problems, otherwise they'd be out of the trailers. But we can't do much for them until we have volunteers."

Volunteers from the United Methodist Church in Livingston, Texas, helped rebuild one home in the county. Moody said that success was a great moment, but more was needed. His next step involves working with local church members who can house volunteers in their homes.

He agreed with Williams that many beyond the county's borders don't know about the people still in need.

"If you don't see the blue roofs, it's out of sight, out of mind," he said.


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Related Links:

Deep East Texas Council of Governments

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