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Two years after Rita, town still lives in trailers

Cameron, La., 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.
Miguel Del Rosal surveys the remains of his home in Cameron, La., on Oct. 2, 2005, a few days after Hurricane Rita ravaged the area.Charlie Riedel / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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 takes 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 Monday as a Category 3 storm whose 120-mph wind and 9-foot storm surge ruined every structure in the southwestern Louisiana towns of Johnson Bayou and Holly Beach. It caused similar destruction in 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.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco arrived Monday morning in the town of Westlake, north of Cameron and near Lake Charles, for the second anniversary observances, including a tour of new facilities where workers are trained for jobs in the energy and construction industries. A shortage of trained workers to construct new homes and work in the state's oil and gas business is seen as a continuing problem in the recovery from the storm.

In Katrina's shadow
Blanco said the rest of the nation should be mindful that Louisiana went through two killer hurricanes in 2005 — not just Katrina — and she sought to reassure Rita victims that they haven't been forgotten.

"The Rita parishes are just as important to us as the Katrina parishes," she said.

In Cameron, the parish courthouse is one of the few buildings that survived Rita. It was a town of about 2,000 residents but 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."

No grocery stores nearby
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 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.

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

The motel had 96 rooms but the storm washed about half of them 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."