Viola Fairchild is 77, limps because of a bad knee and takes seven blood pressure pills a day since Hurricane Rita flattened the house where she lived for 58 years and raised four kids.
She knows a FEMA trailer will likely be her last home in Sabine Pass. Like many in the low-income town of 600, she can’t afford to rebuild.
She doesn’t care that a new hurricane season began June 1. Few people here do.
“There’s nothing left to take,” said Fairchild, who spends her day taking care of her 81-year-old diabetic husband. “What else am I going to lose? What’s anybody here got to lose?”
Nine months after Rita plowed into Sabine Pass on its way through East Texas, there’s not much left for another hurricane to destroy in this community of shrimpers, port hands and refinery workers. The town is still littered with FEMA trailers, piles of debris and gutted houses.
Its only store, which Rita demolished, is still closed. The mound of frayed wires, bricks and broken beams that was the post office remains untouched, and postal service comes from a trailer in front of the rubble.
Rita destroyed 118 of the town’s 245 homes and rendered many more uninhabitable.
'Like trying to revive' a dead child
It also ruined Dianne Jackson’s high school yearbook, which included photos of classmates Janis Joplin and Jimmy Johnson, the former Dallas Cowboys coach. Jackson said that had she sold the book before Rita, she might have made some headway in collecting the $20,000 it will cost to put her next home on the 12-foot concrete pylons the city now requires.
Her money problems are a familiar story in Sabine Pass, and help explain why its residents care little about the state’s new evacuation plans and sheltering strategies, even as forecasters predict as many as six major hurricanes this season.
FEMA has told displaced families it wants its trailers back in March — an impossible deadline for many, considering those that can afford to rebuild are just now seeing construction materials delivered to their lawns by overwhelmed contractors.
But in Sabine Pass, where the median income is about $17,000 and an estimated 70 percent had no homeowners’ insurance, most aren’t that lucky.
“It’s like trying to revive a child that’s dead,” said Jackson, 62, who makes about $350 a month at her part-time security job at a nearby port. “Just enough was left. If it all just washed away, you wouldn’t have to deal with it.”
Lawmakers and officials in southeast Texas have pointed to Sabine Pass in their efforts to pressure Congress for more federal relief. While Louisiana and Mississippi received billions in aid after Hurricane Katrina, Texas was allotted $74.5 million.
Only about $5.2 million of that will go to Sabine Pass and nearby Port Arthur, said Chester Jourdan, executive director of the Southeast Texas Regional Planning Commission. Jourdan thinks Sabine Pass will need at least $30 million to rebuild.
“Without some (more) federal assistance, I don’t see Sabine Pass coming back,” he said.
'It just seems hopeless'
Last week, Congress agreed to a $94.5 billion spending bill that contains $19.8 billion in new money for hurricane relief along the Gulf Coast. Officials in southeast Texas hope $500 million of that will head to the state.
“We’re closer than we’ve ever been,” said Jefferson County Judge Carl Griffith, whose county includes Sabine Pass. “But the bad news is that this either happens for us or this is it. This is the last shot we’ll ever have.”
Time is running out to build. Many residents don’t have an answer when a FEMA agent shows up at their trailer each month and asks the same two questions: What’s your plan, and how’s it coming along?
“If (residents) don’t see something happening (from the federal government), they’re going to move, and when that happens, our town is gone,” said Christy Snider, 57, a lifelong Sabine Pass resident.
Fairchild said she qualified for $27,000 in federal loans but turned the money down because it would barely cover her pylons and slab. Every Tuesday she attends a meeting of Sabine Pass residents who discuss their rebuilding plans, but the meetings never bring her any comfort.
“Every time I leave there I’m more depressed than when I go,” she said. “It just seems hopeless.”