The Forgotten Storm
One year later, Rita's invisible evacuees still wait in the shadow of Katrina
Imagine having recently graduated from college and applying for job after job, month after month, when you're the only one in the newbie-graduate application pool who doesn't have a degree from an Ivy League school. You may be just as deserving, but you keep getting overlooked because you graduated from the local state university. Pretty frustrating.
Many of Texas and Louisiana's Hurricane Rita evacuees are experiencing a similar if more disastrous brand of bureaucratic frustration. In this unlikely academic analogy, Hurricane Katrina, making landfall less than a month before Rita, was the Harvard of modern-day hurricanes. In the subsequent and shamefully competitive nationwide competition for public and private assistance, Rita evacuees are something like recently graduated Aggies: They've got credentials, but their Katrina counterparts are always first in line.
Austin resident Sindy Holmes is all too familiar with the phenomenon of Rita frustration. She's one of about 100,000 Texas Rita survivors the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates were displaced from their homes and are now living in other areas of the state. An unknown number of them are in the Austin area, living in the shadow of the area's more than 3,000 Katrina evacuee families, according to FEMA.
Back in Beaumont, Holmes rented a three-bedroom house for no more than $900 a month. She had two jobs: one full-time as an assistant in a local attorney's office and one part-time selling supplemental health insurance. She didn't consider either job particularly special, but they provided steady, dependable employment she really misses. In Austin, she struggles to pay the rent of her two-bedroom apartment in the Park at Wells Branch, a complex near Pflugerville. She initially had a job as a caseworker with Child Inc., which runs the Head Start program in Austin, through a federal National Emergency Grant, but when the grant ended, she says, she was let go.
That was at the end of April. Holmes says she looked for a job daily hand-delivering, mailing, faxing, and e-mailing her résumé all over the place until June, when she settled for temporary, part-time work as an interviewer with the U.S. Census Bureau. That job ended at the end of August, along with her FEMA rent and utility assistance. Her application for FEMA's Individual Assistance program, to which evacuees have been transitioning from the agency's emergency sheltering housing assistance program, has been pending for months.
"I don't want to be stuck out on the streets with my kids," said Holmes, shortly before the end-of-August cutoff deadline for the emergency sheltering program. "I'm like, 'Lord, I need something to happen quick.'"
Holmes signed up for Section 8 (federally subsidized) housing back in July, when the Housing Authority of the City of Austin opened up its wait list, and she's also on HACA's waiting list for public housing. While she continues to look for a steady job, she sells insurance here and there, relying on the sales commission as a waitress does on tips.
Holmes is thankful for the intermittent assistance she has received, though she believes Texas and Austin should have done more for Rita's survivors. "They didn't do nothing for the Rita evacuees," she said recently.
She isn't the only storm victim who feels that way. Brenda Thomas, an evacuee from Beaumont who is the primary Katrina caseworker for Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services, said her experience has basically boiled down to, "'No, not Rita only Katrina.' ... And I felt that kind of strange, this being Texas, and it was a Texas emergency, and Austin was the capital."
Not one to accept an injustice without protest, Thomas says she would always ask when the subject of hurricane relief came up, "Well, what about Rita?" After a couple of months of this, the organizations she was in contact with regularly, both as a caseworker and as an evacuee, started saying, "OK, Rita, too. We've been given permission to help Rita, also," she said. "Everybody started including 'and Rita, too.'"
She still thinks Gov. Rick Perry and Mayor Will Wynn should have made more of an effort to make sure certain Rita evacuees who stuck around Austin were taken care of. A catastrophe is a catastrophe, and Katrina evacuees weren't the only ones going through one, she said. "I wish that the governor and all the officials of Austin would have recognized that."
When asked if he thinks the Rita evacuees who stuck around Austin are getting overlooked, Mayor Wynn acknowledged that they might not be getting the attention they deserve. "I'm concerned that they may not be. ... There's such a strain from the Katrina event that has everybody's attention."
Steve McCraw, director of Gov. Perry's office of homeland security, said Rita evacuee assistance is a federal matter. "All that really needs to be directed to FEMA," McCraw said. "Ultimately that's their responsibility."
Hurricane Rita's evacuees suffer first from bad timing Rita made landfall on Sunday, Sept. 24, less than a month after Katrina devastated much of the Gulf Coast and then a much less visible badge of carnage. One hundred nineteen deaths, several occurring during the evacuation process, have been attributed to Rita, whereas Katrina is blamed for more than 1,830 fatalities, according to the National Center for Climatic Data (www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/reports/billionz.html#chron).
But Rita was no shrinking violet. According to the Web site of the National Weather Service's Lake Charles office (www.srh.noaa.gov/lch/rita/rita_main.php), when it landed, Rita was a Category 3 hurricane with winds of up to 120 mph (only about 20 mph weaker than Category 3 Katrina at landfall) and "was the strongest hurricane to strike Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana since Hurricane Audrey in June 1957."
Audrey, which killed hundreds of people, was deadlier than Rita, but Rita was more destructive. According to the NCDC, Rita caused an estimated $16 billion in damages, compared to Audrey's $150 million (slightly more than $1 billion when adjusted for inflation), according to the post-storm report from the National Weather Bureau, read by NWS Lake Charles meteorologist Joe Rua over the phone. The differences in the two hurricanes' fatalities and damage numbers is largely attributed to the fact that over the 48-year period, the region became more educated about disaster preparedness but also became more developed, having much more infrastructure by 2005 for Rita to assault.
Affecting a nearly 85,730-square-mile area (larger than West Virginia) in Texas and Louisiana, the expanse of Rita's winds and rain was vast. FEMA estimates that nearly 480,000 people signed up for federal assistance in the storm's aftermath, about 224,400 of whose applications have been approved for the Individual Assistance program.
"It's not ever going to be like it was before," said Sen. Tommy Williams of his district, which includes Jefferson County, where Rita made landfall specifically, just outside the small, now-destroyed community of Sabine Pass, about 30 miles southeast of Beaumont. "The low-income and moderate-income housing stock was decimated by the hurricane," Williams said.
Most of the approximately 18,000 Rita evacuees who initially fled to Austin in the hurricane's immediate aftermath weren't from the area where the storm made landfall and didn't stay here for more than 36 hours, says Kenneth Neafcy, an emergency plans officer with the city's Office of Emergency Management. That's because the state's emergency sheltering plan directs people from the Matagorda Bay area to come to Austin. Rita ultimately missed Matagorda Bay, so many of its evacuees, who were stuck for hours or even days in ghastly hurricane-inspired, northwest-bound traffic, simply returned home when Rita made landfall further southeast, many within two or three days. According to FEMA, there officially remain fewer than 100 Rita evacuees living in Austin receiving rent assistance from the agency at this point, compared to about 23,000 statewide.
Yet that relatively small number may be misleading, and it's difficult to know how many Rita evacuees truly are in the Austin area to this day. Both Holmes and Thomas have been unsuccessful in their attempts to get assistance from FEMA. Surely they're not the only two local Rita survivors in that situation. Thomas, the Rita evacuee with Austin/Travis Co. HHS, says she watched in frustration as her clients got money from FEMA "left and right," while she tried repeatedly to qualify for the agency's Individual Assistance housing program. "They were throwing money like they were throwing away trash," she said. "I said, 'If I only had a portion of that, I'd be happy.'"
Thomas is appealing FEMA's determination that she's ineligible for Individual Assistance. Unlike the aftermath of Katrina, when much of New Orleans was partially or completely underwater, the damage done to Thomas' apartment in Beaumont was more subtle and hard to document. Water blown in by winds of more than 100 mph seeped into her apartment through places like cracks around the windows, the tiny space between the front door and the floor, and the toilet, which backed up because Rita overwhelmed the city's sewage system. On her floor, she had several boxes full of things from her move-in, a little over a year before the hurricane. Everything in the boxes was ruined, so when she returned to Beaumont to clean out her place, she threw those things in the complex's Dumpster.
Now, on top of not having any ruined possessions to show FEMA's adjusters, she believes any water damage that had been done to her old place which could help her prove that she suffered a monetary loss from the hurricane has been repaired, and a new tenant now lives there. "There's nothing to see," she said, "but I still need assistance."
A recent e-mail from FEMA spokesman Don Jacks indicates that other evacuees share Thomas' situation. "What I've learned in these two disasters," Jacks writes, "is that there seems to always be the need, but the eligibility requirements can't always be met. And without eligibility, there can be no assistance."
Counting to 10
Holmes initially evacuated to Jasper, then came to Austin with a cousin when Jasper's electricity failed. It wasn't long before she was able to see the relocation as an opportunity to replace her Southeast Texas life with a hipper, more urban one in Austin. A year later, however, she has begun to wonder if staying here was the right choice. "Sometimes I think maybe I made the wrong decision," she said. "I'm looking at some of the other evacuees, and they've got darn good jobs, and I'm like, 'What happened?'"
Sometimes Holmes says she gets so frustrated she feels like screaming and giving up on finding a job, but then she thinks of her 12-year-old daughter, Quinn the youngest of her three children, the others being 18 and 19 and knows that quitting isn't an option. "I can't just say, 'Well, this is it.' I can't just let it go like that."
Her best option right now might be getting together with Thomas, who is writing a children's book called What to Do When You Feel Like Screaming offering peaceful alternatives to throwing a fit. It was inspired by Thomas' temperamental 9-year-old nephew, who she says will be recognized prominently on the cover with a photo she took of him in McDonald's right before he popped his cork and threw a tantrum.
"I need to use that book right now," Thomas said.