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Impact of 'forgotten' hurricane still felt

Physical and emotional scars of Hurricane Rita still fresh five years later

BY JOHN PAPE | September 23, 2010

While news organizations, elected officials, community leaders and even President Barack Obama have been formally been marking the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, little attention has been paid to the fifth anniversary of another devastating Gulf Coast storm Hurricane Rita.

Many who lived through the storm’s fury as it tore into southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas five years ago call Rita the “forgotten” hurricane.

Hurricane Rita was a Category 3 storm when it made landfall between Sabine Pass, Texas and Johnson’s Bayou, Louisiana on Sept. 23, 2005, less than four weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

The storm hit Cameron Parish, Louisiana almost head-on, its 120 mile-per-hour winds and 10-foot storm surge devastating much of the low-lying coastal parish. The elevation of Cameron, the parish seat, is only three feet above sea level. The storm all but wiped the small fishing community off the map. The only recognizable structure in the town after Rita was the parish courthouse.

Reflecting back on the five years since the storm, Cameron Parish Sheriff Theos Duhon said the scars physical and emotional are still fresh in many peoples’ minds.

“There are some days you just get a lump in your throat to remember that time; how things were before and how things are now,” Duhon said. “I think every man, woman and child in Cameron Parish was affected by Rita.”

Duhon said 40 of his 76 employees “lost everything” in the storm. He also compared the impact of Rita to that of Hurricane Audrey in 1957.

“A lot of people marked time in Cameron Parish as before Audrey and after Audrey. Now they say the same thing about Rita,” Duhon said. “But the people of Cameron always come back. They always have and they always will.”

Rita’s devastation was felt across all of Cameron Parish. The communities of Creole, Grand Chenier, Hackberry, Holly Beach and Johnson’s Bayou were either heavily damaged or, in some cases, entirely destroyed. Aerial photos of the Cameron coastline taken immediately following the storm showed nothing left of Holly Beach, including coastal state highway 82 that connected Holly Beach and Johnson’s Bayou to the Texas community of Sabine Pass.

Fisherman Bobby Broussard and his family lost everything in the storm, including their family dog.

“We evacuated up to DeRidder where my wife has family, but the old dog was nowhere around when we left. The roads were filling up, so we had to go,” Broussard recalled.

He said he secured his fishing boat and boarded up the family mobile home expecting to return to see damage, but was completely unprepared when he saw the utter devastation.

“I cried. I’m a grown man who hadn’t cried since my daddy died, but I cried like a baby when I saw Cameron,” he said, pausing to compose himself. “It still hurts me today when I think about it. I don’t think it could’ve been worse if they’d have dropped an atom bomb on it.”

Broussard said the lot where his mobile home stood was filled with nothing but storm debris.

“You would’ve never thought a home ever stood there; there was nothing left, nothing that even looked like it used to be a home,” he recalled. “We never found anything. All we had was the few things we packed when we evacuated.”

Broussard’s livelihood his fishing boat was also lost.

“The only difference was we found most of the boat. It was washed a couple of miles inland; they found it up in the big marsh,” he said.

Like much of Cameron Parish, Broussard rebuilt. Today, he and his family have a “new used” fishing boat and a new modular home built on piers. Still, he knows the next storm may take that as well.

“It makes my wife real nervous when there’s a storm in the Gulf. If it even looks like it will get close, she goes to her family,” Broussard said. “But this is our home; this is our life. It another storm takes this one, we’ll rebuild again.”

Little diminished by the coastal marshes of Cameron, Rita next took aim at Lake Charles, Louisiana’s fifth-largest city with a population just over 70,000 people. Much of the city’s economy was tied to large petrochemical plants and glitzy gaming casinos, all of which were located in areas particularly vulnerable to the six- to eight-foot storm surge.

Most of the casinos, and much of downtown Lake Charles including the city’s signature civic center and Capital One Tower, are located around the large saltwater lake from which the city takes its name.

Lake Charles resident Patrick Fontenot worked at the Citgo Refinery in 2005 and recalled the preparations his plant made as Rita approached.

“Pretty much all the plants are along the ship channel, so we knew we’d have some flooding. We worked like crazy to secure as much as we could, but we knew we’d have some damage,” Fontenot said. “The casinos had the same problem. Most of them are along the lakefront in Lake Charles and the storm surge got them.”

Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach said despite the extensive damage sustained by the community, the city is now “probably 90 percent recovered.”

“We’re still dealing with some recovery issues; we still have some damaged property on the demolition list, but we’ve mostly recovered from Rita. The economy has recovered and most major facilities have been repaired,” Roach said.

One former casino remains vacant, Roach explained, and will probably be demolished.

The former Harrah’s Casino, located along the city’s North Beach area, was heavily damaged and has remained shuttered since Rita. Harrah’s decided not to rebuild and sold the property to Pinnacle Entertainment. Pinnacle decided to turn the property over to the city rather than undertake the costly repairs needed to re-open the former casino.

Roach said the city will seek a buyer for a period of time. If no acceptable offer is received, the city will probably tear the building down and redevelop the area for some other purpose.

Roach also said some of the North Beach lakefront area is still in need of repair. The area was first damaged by Hurricane Rita, and then again by Hurricane Ike in 2008.

“We’re still trying to rehabilitate and upgrade the beach after both of the storms damaged it,” Roach said.

Still, Roach said, Lake Charles has come back strong and is close to where it was before Rita. He also said the storm taught the city’s emergency managers to be “flexible.”

“Rita, and later Hurricane Ike, taught up to be flexible in our emergency response. These are extremely fluid situations and our response must be sufficiently flexible to adapt as the situation evolves,” Roach said. “We’re better for that. We’re battle-hardened and battle-ready when the next storm strikes.”

He also said the city learned to pull together.

“We really learned how resilient we are; the people of Lake Charles really pulled together. It was amazing to see how everyone pulled together to help one another,” Roach said.

Lake Charles and Cameron were not the only Louisiana communities affected by Rita. In Vinton, near the Texas Louisiana border, several fires burned out of control as firefighters were unable to respond due to storm conditions. Additionally, the city’s recreation center lost its roof.

Virtually every coastal parish in Louisiana experienced some degree of flooding from Rita, including Terrebonne Parish where every levee was breached. More then 100 people across coastal Louisiana had to be rescued after clinging to rooftops to escape rising floodwaters.

Texas also bore the brunt of much of Rita’s fury. In the southeast Texas “Golden Triangle” an area bordered by the cities of Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange as many as half of all homes and businesses were severely damaged by hurricane-force winds. In Beaumont, more than 25 percent of trees in the heavily-wooded city were uprooted.

Former firefighter Jerry Sistrunk, who was part of the recovery team following the storm, called the wind damage was “incredible.”

“I guess the area fared better than over in Louisiana, we didn’t have the storm surge, but the winds just seemed to have damaged every tree, home, business and sign as far as you could see,” Sistrunk recalled. “It more looked like pictures of the aftermath of a big tornado than a hurricane.”

Sistrunk said one of the most moving memories he has is of a group of church members standing in front of their church building. The roof of the church was gone, the stained-glass windows were missing and part of the masonry had toppled.

“It was hot and steamy, devastation everywhere, and they were standing in a circle, holding hands, singing hymns. One lady who had her arm bandaged, said they were praying for us,” Sistrunk said. “They had lost their church and several said they had lost the roofs off their homes, but they were praying for us because we were firefighters. That’s one of those special times when you see the best kind of humanity.”

While the Houston area was spared from major damage, some windows were blown out of downtown office towers.

The biggest problem encountered in the Houston area was massive freeway gridlock after then-Mayor Bill White issued a dire Sept. 22 warning for residents to move to safety, invoking still-fresh memories of what Katrina had done to New Orleans. The resulting exodus overwhelmed IH-45 going north to Dallas, IH-10 west to San Antonio and US Hwy. 290 to Austin as Houston area resident fled for safety.

The sheer number of automobiles snarled virtually every road leading out of Houston, even after transportation authorities opened all freeway lanes to outbound traffic in what became the largest evacuation in U.S. history.

In many cases, cars ran out of gas as they idled in traffic, gas stations ran out of fuel, hotels ran out of rooms and restaurants ran out of food.

As a result of the Katrina experience, Texas revamped its evacuation plans, developed a contraflow system for evacuation routes and instituted zoned evacuations.

In the end, Hurricane Rita resulted in seven direct fatalities, with an additional 112 indicts deaths attributed to the storm. More than $10 billion in damage was sustained, primarily in Louisiana and Texas.

Still, Rita’s legacy lives in the shadow of Hurricane Katrina. That continues to be a sore spot for many like Port Arthur’s Kenny Cormier.

“The government, the news media, the aid agencies were all focused on Katrina. We got the leftovers,” Cormier said. “You ask anyone about Hurricane Katrina and they can tell you what happened. Nobody remembers Rita. Nobody but those of us who lived through it.”

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