2 Years After Hurricane Rita

Monday, September 24th 2007, 7:30 am
By: News On 6

CAMERON, La. (AP) _ This Louisiana town may have dried out and cleaned up since getting flattened by Hurricane Rita, but its recovery is moving in slow motion: Nearly everyone still lives in temporary housing.

The post office operates out of a trailer. The town's only bank works out of a trailer. Darlene Dyson sells shrimp from a trailer, then picks up her 7-year-old son and brings him to their home _ a trailer.

``It's not like it was before the storm, that's for sure,'' Dyson said.

Rita struck two years ago on Monday as a Category 3 storm whose 120-mph winds and 9-foot storm surge ruined every structure in the southwestern Louisiana towns of Johnson Bayou and Holly Beach. It brought similar destruction to southeastern Texas.

About 100 died in Texas, including 23 senior citizens whose bus exploded during evacuations. The storm caused no fatalities in Louisiana, but plenty of property damage in Cameron and Vermilion parishes.

In all, there were $5.8 billion in property insurance claims in Texas and Louisiana, according to a Texas insurance group.

In Cameron, the parish courthouse is one of the few buildings that survived Rita. It was a town of about 2,000 residents. Local officials estimate today's population at about half that.

Those who have moved back, or plan to, have complaints similar to those of residents hit by Hurricane Katrina: the process of returning home is stymied by disputes with property insurers and paperwork from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Marvin Trahan, 46, is hoping his lawsuit against his insurer will be settled this year so he can move back. The storm destroyed his three-bedroom house. He now lives in Lake Charles but wants to build a smaller, replacement house on his property in Cameron.

Trahan said the pull of his hometown lies in its small-town peacefulness, plus its proximity to prime hunting and fishing areas.

``You can fish here, you can hunt here, you can do whatever you want,'' Trahan said. ``You can leave your door unlocked all night without worrying about somebody coming in. It's just a great place to live.''

Living in Cameron is especially difficult because no grocery stores or pharmacies have opened since the storm. Residents must drive 50 miles north to buy supplies. Dyson drives 53 miles to Lake Charles every Monday, to buy her groceries and other essentials.

``That's 106 miles roundtrip,'' she said, ``just to get a pound of meat.''

Few elderly residents have returned, partly because Cameron still has no hospital. In emergencies, ambulances must drive to a medical center in Lake Charles. A rebuilt $23 million hospital is set to open in Cameron this fall with 20 beds.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco planned to mark the second anniversary by touring new facilities where workers are trained for jobs in Louisiana's energy and construction industries.

Blanco hopes to highlight what many see as an ongoing problem with recovery from the storm: a shortage of trained workers to construct new homes and work in the state's oil and gas business.

Anil Patel, owner of the Cameron Motel, has a different problem. He said his business suffers from a lack of customers willing to pay $69.99 per night for a room.

The motel had 96 rooms before the storm, which washed about half of those away. His clientele is normally made up of offshore workers, but the majority of his remaining 51 rooms usually sit vacant. Patel said he and his wife _ who live in a trailer next to the motel _ are struggling.

``I hope things pick up. But I don't know,'' he said.

One bright spot in the recovery is the Ice House Bar, which is thriving since it opened across the street from the courthouse early this year, in one of the few new buildings that isn't temporary. The tavern has pool tournaments every week, while patrons take to the dance floor when country and Cajun bands are playing.

``We needed a place like this,'' said Dyson, sipping a beer in the Ice House on a recent afternoon. ``We needed a place to laugh.''