2 Years On, Rita's Effects Linger in La.

The Associated Press
Monday, September 24, 2007; 5:36 PM

CAMERON, La. -- This southwestern 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.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco marked the storm's second anniversary Monday by assuring area residents they were not being overlooked in favor of New Orleans and its struggles after Hurricane Katrina, the other Category 3 storm that struck the state in 2005.

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

Rita's 120-mph wind and 9-foot storm surge ruined every structure in Johnson Bayou and Holly Beach, and 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.

Blanco touted the Louisiana Recovery Authority's new recruiting and job training program, paid for with a $38 million federal grant, aimed at filling a shortage of skilled workers, a problem exacerbated by housing shortages and other post-Katrina and Rita troubles.

"We've still got a long way to go, but the process is in place for a very strong recovery," Blanco told several dozen people at a petroleum processing plant in Westlake, a refinery town about 200 miles west of New Orleans.

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 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 or pharmacies have opened in Cameron since the storm. Residents must drive 50 miles north to buy supplies.

A rebuilt $23 million hospital is set to open in Cameron this fall with 20 beds, but until then, ambulances must drive to a medical center in Lake Charles.

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."

© 2007 The Associated Press