Rita recovery in TX: thousands in need

Long waiting list for help; people "stressed . . . getting desperate."

BY HEATHER MOYER | BEAUMONT, Texas | May 3, 2007

Many homes, like this Beaumont residence in southeast Texas, still have blue tarps on their roofs more than 18 months after Hurricane Rita.
Credit: Heather Moyer/DNN

Rita Recovery volunteers leave their mark on the office wall after spending time in southeast Texas.
Credit: DNN/Heather Moyer

When anyone from the Rita Recovery organization comes to Martha Traylor's door in Beaumont, they always get a hug. She did exactly that Wednesday afternoon when Ward Smith came to check on her.

"The Lord has really blessed me with all kinds of great people," Traylor said. "These were some of the sweetest people in my house."

Smith and teams of volunteers working through Rita Recovery helped repair Traylor's home, which was damaged by Hurricane Rita in 2005. The hurricane knocked out all the windows and doors of the house.

The 83-year-old Traylor had been putting up blankets and sheets over her boarded-up windows in the months since the hurricane to keep the heat or cold out. These days, she can see the outdoors through new windows.

"I can look through my house now and say, 'Hallelujah!'" Traylor said with a laugh.

Ward said thousands of people such as Traylor - who don't have anyone else to turn to for assistance are being helped by Rita Recovery.

"We work with single mothers, widows and the elderly," said Ward, a construction coordinator for the group.

The organization is repairing Rita-damaged homes in Chambers, Hardin, Jefferson and Orange counties. The hurricane damaged or destroyed an estimated 75,000 homes in southeast Texas. Thousands of families are still in need more than 20 months after the storm.

Driving around Beaumont, Ward pointed out blue tarps still on roofs damaged by the hurricane. Some are tattered and torn. Others are completely gone except for the strips of wood that once held them in place. Still other homeowners have continued replacing the tarps on their roof to keep out the rain.

In Port Arthur alone, Rita Recovery has an estimated 400 to 500 cases that are either active or waiting to be helped. With no affordable housing available as residents wait for repairs, many are still living in severely damaged homes that are full of mold. Many are still coming forward for help.

The families are extremely stressed, said Rita Recovery construction supervisor Alan Miller.

"The families are getting desperate now - you can feel it and you can almost taste it," he said.

Miller said he has to tell affected residents about the long waiting list and that it may take a month or two to return with a volunteer work team. He also explains the extensive recovery process to volunteers, which he said is always a staggering reality to them.

"I calculated how many homes you'd have to finish in each day to complete the recovery in a year," said Miller, using the 75,000 damaged homes as a starting point. "It'd be 204 homes each day for us to get it done in a year. Even if we stretch that out to 10 years, it'd still take us doing 20 homes each day, 365 days a year."

Volunteers are the lifeblood of the recovery operation since they do the work, he said.

Beaumont resident Rosa Duriso can attest to the hope that volunteers bring. They fixed her roof, installed drywall and painted her damaged home.

"It had been raining in the kitchen," Duriso said. "There were big roof dents.

"They did an excellent job and they were all so nice and friendly," she added.

Duriso said that she loves that when it rains nowadays, she can watch the rain stay outside and no longer has to put a cover over her bed to keep it from getting wet.

In addition to the physical assistance the volunteers bring, Miller said they also provide an emotional lift to residents.

"All you have to do is show up. Just pull up in front of their house - it's unreal," he said.

From there, as the volunteers repair the home, the family's mood goes to one of "I can make it" and "It'll get better," Miller said. Many of those who have been helped join the teams in the repairs.

"Some will help clean up parts of their homes they haven't touched since the hurricane," he said. "Before, it was overwhelming, but now they've had this helping hand to get them started. There's hope, and it's just awesome to see that turn of events in their lives."

Volunteers helped George Pickens get a start on his home repairs, fixing his roof and putting in insulation. Now he is on a mission to finish on his own the drywall that was damaged in the back bedroom and bathroom.

Standing in his family room, Pickens proudly showed off recently painted walls.

"I can paint, too, now," he said. "It's going to look like a new house soon."

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