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Rita victims living 'like cavemen' as officials try to clean up, restore power

By wire services
Published September 28, 2005

PORT ARTHUR, Texas - Nearly four days after Hurricane Rita hit, many of the storm's sweltering victims along the Texas Gulf Coast were still waiting for electricity, gasoline, water and other relief Tuesday, prompting one top emergency official to complain that people are "living like cavemen."

In the hard-hit refinery towns of Port Arthur and Beaumont, crews struggled to cross debris-clogged streets to deliver generators and water to people stranded by Rita. They predicted it could be a month before power is restored, and said water and sewer systems could not function until more generators arrived.

John Owens, emergency management coordinator and deputy police chief in the town of 57,000, said pleas for state and federal relief were met with requests for paperwork.

"We have been living like cavemen, sleeping in cars, doing bodily functions outside," he said.

Temperatures climbed into the upper 90s, and officials worried that swarms of mosquitoes might spread disease.

In Beaumont, Texas Gov. Rick Perry cautioned against criticism.

"There's always going to be those discombobulations, but the fact is, everyone is doing everything possible to restore power back to this area," Perry said.

About 476,000 people remained without electricity in Texas, in addition to around 285,000 in Louisiana. About 15,000 out-of-state utility workers were being brought to the region to help restore power.

And there were some signs of progress. In Orange, Texas, people converged in cars and trucks outside a shopping strip for water, food and ice supplied by the private disaster group the Compassion Alliance.

"I know it's going to take some time, but we really appreciate this," Dorothy Landry, 66, said after waiting in the line. "I can't thank them enough."

President gets firsthand look at Rita's damage

LAKE CHARLES, La. - President Bush flew over the largely obliterated Louisiana town of Cameron and circled an offshore oil rig Tuesday in his first up-close look at the devastation that Hurricane Rita brought to the Gulf Coast's oil producing and refining communities.

"This area's hurting," Bush said before an hourlong helicopter tour over the debris-strewn communities along the Texas-Louisiana border where Rita blew ashore. "I saw firsthand how it's hurting."

Bush saw flattened and flooded homes, hundreds of downed trees, extensive roof damage and dozens of stranded and wandering cows. It was the president's seventh visit to the gulf in the aftermath of the two hurricanes that brought widespread damage here in less than a month, but it was his first personal look at the area hit by Rita.

"I understand there's a lot of frustrations," the president said in Lake Charles. "People who are scattered around want to come back and see their homes. They want to come back to the communities they love. But it's very important for them to understand that now's not the time to come back."

Bush stood with Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco who said the oil and gas industry was dependent on "a healthy Louisiana." Bush, a former oilman, patted her sympathetically on the back.

"Some things worked right this time," Blanco said, comparing what happened with Rita with the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. "We learned a lot of lessons from our previous experience with Katrina. Our communications network stayed up."

Chertoff repeats pledge to investigate response

MIAMI BEACH - Americans deserve an explanation as to what went wrong during Hurricane Katrina response efforts, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Tuesday.

Chertoff repeated his and President Bush's previous pledges to have a full investigation into the federal government's hurricane response.

"We owe the American people a full accounting from all levels of government concerning what went right and what went wrong with the initial Katrina response," Chertoff said at the annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Officials learned from mistakes made during Katrina, and responded to Hurricane Rita better prepared and more efficiently, he said.

"Just two weeks out from Hurricane Katrina, improvements in communication and coordination between levels of government were already evident," Chertoff said. "But that is only one step in ensuring that we identify the lessons learned from Katrina and make the necessary adjustments."

Lawmakers question contract for cruise ships

MIAMI - Two U.S. lawmakers are questioning a $192-million deal between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Carnival Cruise Lines that called for Hurricane Katrina evacuees to be housed in three luxury cruise liners.

Rep. Marilyn N. Musgrave, R-Colo., said she plans to order a Congressional investigation into the Sept. 2 deal. And Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., has requested a copy of Carnival's contract and documentation supporting its cost from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

The Navy's Military Sealift Command negotiated the contract for FEMA and promised Carnival $192-million for the use of three ships - the Sensation, Ecstasy and Holiday - through February. It also agreed to reimburse Carnival $44-million for fuel and other costs.

FEMA could have housed about 7,100 people who lost their homes in Katrina on the three ships. But many evacuees told FEMA they had become afraid of the water after escaping Katrina's floods and wanted no part of a ship.

The Sensation and Ecstasy now are providing temporary shelter to about 1,000 police officers in New Orleans, Carnival officials told analysts during a conference call last week.

The Holiday is in Mobile, Ala., where it is housing an unknown number of evacuees.

"Many of the berths are going unfilled, which could make the costs per person extraordinarily high," Waxman wrote to Chertoff.

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