Supplies Scarce, Patience Thin Around Houston

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 17, 2008

HOUSTON, Sept. 16 -- For the past four days, since Hurricane Ike plowed across Houston, knocking down power lines and wreaking havoc, home for the Hawkins family has mostly been their Chevy Malibu in the parking lot. Their apartment, in a complex called Concord, has no electricity and is stifling in Houston's swampy heat. The place has water damage and a mildewy kind of smell. The family is starting to feel ill from the stink, and from taking cold showers.

"This is horrible," said Chandra Hawkins, who was in the passenger seat charging her cellphone through the cigarette lighter while her 4-year-old son, Renan, played a portable video game in the back. "That's why we're in the car. They need to get us someplace to live. It feels better in this car than in my house."

Her sister, Monique Hawkins, in the front seat, chimed in: "People don't have $50 to fill up the gas tank and then $80 a night in a hotel."

The nation's fourth-largest city hovers somewhere between the First World and the Third. Parts of Houston, including downtown, are struggling back to normalcy; debris has been largely removed from the main streets, highways are open, and traffic is flowing. Power has been restored to more than 600,000 customers.

But in large sections of the city -- such as the southwest, where the Hawkins family spends sweltering days in the car -- the devastation is everywhere, the supplies are few, and cleanup appears nowhere in sight. About 1.4 million businesses and residences in Houston still do not have electricity.

The scenes of scarcity and everyday survival seem jarring in a major American metropolis and the country's energy capital. And as people scrounge and scavenge for basic supplies, patience is starting to wear thin, giving way to rising frustration and anger.

"They're not coming around to tell us nothing!" said Bridget Britton, a neighbor of the Hawkins family at the Concord apartments. "It's like they don't care."

On Tuesday morning, President Bush came to Houston and took a helicopter tour of the storm-ravaged coast. He urged residents to be patient as authorities scrambled to clean up and to restore electricity.

"You know, it's a tough situation on the coast," Bush said. "I have been president long enough to have seen tough situations, and have seen the resilience of the people to be able to deal with the tough situations. . . . I know with proper help from the federal government and the state government, there will be a better tomorrow."

Unlike during Hurricane Rita in 2005, when the city attempted a mass evacuation that turned chaotic on the clogged highways, the majority of Houston residents this time were told to "shelter in place." Most did, and they emerged the next day to a ruined landscape -- and practically nothing open. No grocery stores, no restaurants, no fast-food joints, no ATMs.

Many Houstonians do not have the means to leave, even if they had wanted to evacuate. "We're living paycheck to paycheck," said Britton, who works at the city's mental health office. "I don't get paid until the 26th. I couldn't go to a hotel if I wanted to -- I just filled up my car for $45."

While they wait for order and help, a kind of survivalist instinct has kicked in among many of those who remained. People roam the city looking for essentials, mainly gas stations with working pumps, or anyone selling ice, or charcoal for cooking while the electricity is out. Tips are passed by word of mouth on the streets and in parking lots: There's word that Sam's Club has bags of ice. A Chevron has gas and the wait time is only 30 minutes.

Lines are long at the few stores that have opened. Radio Shack opened some outlets in southwest Houston, but the stores were allowing only one customer at a time inside. One had no power, the other had only three people working and could not handle a crush of customers. Outside, people lined up waiting their turn, hoping to buy car chargers for their cellphones, radios and batteries.

"Ain't no sittin' down. Got to keep running!" said Medetta Dixon, 55, who was racing at noon to grab whatever supplies she could get at a FEMA distribution point set up at a church. "I'm out here hustling ice, gas and food." She said she had been running around the city since 7 a.m., trying to get supplies to stockpile for herself, her 82-year-old father and her 70-year-old stepmother.

"We got no TV. I'm running out trying to get batteries," she said. Most of the food in her freezer had spoiled, so she and her husband were subsisting on peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. "I got my first soda and a little pack of cookies," she said, showing her latest purchases. She found them at the gas station where she earlier filled up the car.

"It's a learning experience," said Joyce Ware, who was driving around southwest Houston on the lookout for anyone selling ice. She has no electricity and is living, along with a dozen other family members, in the house of a niece who does. "I grew up on the farm," she said. "I picked cotton in the heat. We didn't have a fan, and we used the toilet outdoors. So I can go primitive if necessary."

At gas stations that were open and pumping, the lines Tuesday snaked for up to a mile, sometimes completely around a city block. Police were on hand to keep order. "It's ridiculous," said Lea Rogers, 17, a high school senior who had been waiting in a gas line for more than an hour, all the while watching her fuel gauge hover at empty. "They're not doing enough to get our power back on."

She expressed frustration and anger at the media, among others, for focusing on the destruction in Galveston and not on the hardships in Houston.

Like others, particularly in predominantly African American neighborhoods, Beverly Jean said she believes there was favoritism involved in which neighborhoods were helped first -- which got power restored and which had debris removed.

"This is not the glamorous part," said Jean, a retired accountant who worked on a government contract in Iraq two years ago. "This is where the real taxpayers live. These are the people who make up America. These are laborers."

She added, angrily: "I went into the middle of the desert and saw how they can make Iraq look just like here, with Popeye's Chicken and all that. . . . The government took care of Iraq better than they take care of our own people."

Staff writer Dan Eggen in Washington contributed to this report.

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