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For Texas holdouts, Rita was ‘terrifying’

Hindsight was crystal clear for Trevor Cormier, who was among the few Port Arthur residents who ignored demands to evacuate and weathered Hurricane Rita’s violent landfall.
Hurricane Rita Slams Into U.S. Gulf Coast
Thomas Washington surveys damage to his neighborhood in Port Arthur, Texas from his flooded yard following Hurricane Rita on Saturday. Scott Olson / Getty Images
/ Source: Reuters

Hindsight was crystal clear for Trevor Cormier, who was among the handful of Port Arthur residents who ignored demands to evacuate and hunkered down Saturday through Hurricane Rita’s violent landfall.

“I scared myself to sleep,” Cormier said as he tried to drive back home from a friend’s house in town, impeded by waterlogged streets.

Rita took a damaging toll on this seaport in Texas’ southeastern-most corner on the Gulf Coast. The storm crumbled buildings, stripped roofs, swamped streets and seemed to do at least some damage to virtually every structure in town.

Officials estimated more than 90 percent of the population, almost certainly spurred by the horrific images out of New Orleans of those left behind after Katrina struck, fled to higher ground ahead of Rita. As winds and rain continued to whip the city after daybreak, the streets were empty except for the hurricane’s debris.

Dodging ceiling tiles and broken windows
Cormier, 25, and a carload of friends were among the few souls visible.

“It was terrifying,” he said of his experience at a friend’s house. “The ceiling tiles all fell down, Sheetrock fell down, the windows broke. (Advertising) signs were inside the house.”

A friend, Jacelyne Patrick, 22, said a Port Arthur street sign crashed through a window.

Even after daybreak, when the hurricane’s destructive forces had passed north, Patrick said she knew some fellow citizens were still petrified.

“There are people that are so scared they’re still in their closets,” she said about seven hours after Rita’s overnight landfall near the mouth of the Sabine River separating Texas and Louisiana.

Damage was consistent across the city. The already depressed downtown, rife with vacant storefronts, had several wall collapses and broken windows in forgotten buildings nobody bothered to protect against the elements.

The only electricity visible was the occasionally dangerous live power line. Natural gas leaks also were a concern.

Ashton Harrison, 38, rode out the storm in nearby Beaumont for part of the night before returning home to Port Arthur. He debated with himself over whether to try to make it to Houston, about 90 miles west, on a half tank of gasoline, knowing there was little fuel to be had in southeast Texas.

He also wondered about the construction site near his home, where items were left unsecured.

“There was a Port-A-Potty back there. I bet it’s in Louisiana now,” he said.

Makeshift headquarters for emergency personnel
At the Holiday Inn on Jimmy Johnson Boulevard, named for the favorite son and former Dallas Cowboys coach, police and fire officials set up a makeshift headquarters where they could bunk down and be centrally located to respond to calls.

Lt. Pat Powell, who along with the city’s other officials spent the night in an inland high school gymnasium before returning en masse Saturday to secure the city, found his thoughts split between his duty and his personal life.

He assumed his family evacuated successfully, but he had not talked to them since Rita hit. He also assumes his home, in Bridge City on the Sabine River, could be a casualty.

“I know my house was right in the center (of Rita) ... but that’s OK. My family’s OK. I never worry about houses,” he said, mustering a sense of humor. “I never liked that house that much anyhow, and I’ve got insurance.”