"Guys, we got looters at the Chevron! Let's go!"
So screamed the police chief of this hurricane-bedeviled east Texas town on Saturday afternoon.
Having been pounded by Rita overnight, Jasper on Saturday had no electricity, no water pressure and no working sewage-treatment plant. Gasoline was all gone. The hospital had closed, and hundreds of wind-shredded trees had trapped many of the town's 8,000 residents inside their homes. There were also a thousand or so stranded hurricane evacuees from Houston, Galveston and points south who had tossed up here Friday in futile attempts to outrun Rita. They had been messily housed at three schools, where there were no cots and no lights and the toilets were backing up.
And those looters. Police dispatch said they were hitting the grocery next to the Sonic drive-in restaurant.
"We already arrested five of them," said Todd Hunter, chief of police. "They aren't evacuees. They're local idiots."
Jasper has a police force of 18 officers; not enough, Hunter said, to deal with hurricane damage, looters and a horde of strangers who are out of gas.
Through no fault of his own, Hunter was in charge of dealing with hungry, exhausted and increasingly irritable outsiders. They had gotten stuck in the town, but it was never supposed to be part of any evacuation route. That is because hurricanes, Hunter said, have a way of smacking Jasper, which is about 90 miles north of the Gulf Coast, and racking it with roof-ripping winds.
Those winds had largely cut the town off from the outside world for much of Saturday, with hundreds of trees down on roads into and out of town. In Jasper's crowded isolation, hurricane-battered hometown folks and their local officials had no choice but to find a way to endure and accommodate the sudden crowd of needy strangers.
Although the weather had largely cleared by late Saturday afternoon, the few evacuees who had gas could not leave. They were milling around in the dark, smelly hallways of the schools-turned-shelters because police told them there was no safe way to drive away from Jasper.
A handful of Texas state troopers arrived here in the late afternoon, but, Hunter said, they did not want to help the city with security at the shelters. He also said power was unlikely to be restored for several weeks because of extensive hurricane damage here and in Beaumont, which supplies electricity for Jasper and was also hit hard by Rita.
As far any other imminent assistance for Jasper, Hunter said 1,500 meals have been promised for Sunday, along with a generator that would allow the water department and sewer system to start up. But he said there was no prospect, yet, of deliveries of fuel.
"The state police are using my fuel," he said.
Hunter said that there is a major military base, Fort Polk, about 60 miles from Jasper and that it could provide military police for security and a generator to bring power to the town. "We're trying to reach them, but bureaucracy holds things up," he said. "While things go through channels, people are suffering."
At Jasper Junior High School, Rita's howling winds turned off the power about 1 a.m. Saturday, as 440 evacuees cowered in the hallways.
"We could hear the windows shatter around the school, and the pressure was making water in the toilets spill all over the bathrooms," said Cotrena Barnes, 38, who works at a Sam's Club store in Houston.
She and her husband, their six children, her mother and a brother had no intention of spending a bit of time in this town. They live in Houston, in a low-lying area that Mayor Bill White had ordered evacuated.
They followed orders. But after 16 hours of crawling north in the worst traffic jam in Texas history, they ran low on fuel and discovered the charms of Jasper.
A police officer directed them to the junior high, which was filing up with lost souls.
"It's okay here, I guess," said Barnes, whose family had brought along food for a couple of days on the road. "But there are no lights; the toilets are backed up. It is not what the kids are used to. We need hot food, baths and information. We are clueless. We don't know anything about how we will get out of here."
Back home in Houston on Saturday, the mayor was on television much of the day, congratulating his city for having dodged the hurricane and noting that bayous in low-lying areas of the city had not flooded. As it turned out, nobody who lived in those areas needed to flee.
Hearing this, Barnes ran her hand over her tired face and blamed her family's predicament on the fear created by Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans less than a month ago. Katrina, Barnes said, motivated everyone in her family to want to flee Rita.
"I hate to say it, but I think we did the right thing by evacuating," she said. "You never know what can happen."
Down the dark hallway of the junior high, Lucretia Hopper, 60, who is in a wheelchair because of spastic paralysis, said she and her husband, Clarence, had made a huge mistake by leaving Beaumont on Friday to try to outrun Rita.
"This was supposed to be such a bad storm, but I learned from one of the police that there's a good chance my house in Beaumont is fine," Hopper said.
She slept on Friday night in her wheelchair in the school hallway. She said she has severe sores on her legs and needs to find a bed. (The police say they are hoping to get some cots but do not know when they will arrive.) Her husband slipped this morning on a wet floor in the school cafeteria and hit his head. He slept much of Saturday afternoon, and his wife said she was worried he was "not right."
"We probably should have stayed home," Hopper said. "We wouldn't have had electricity, but at least we would have been home. I have a special bed and a special bath, and I need them."
At police headquarters late Saturday afternoon, Hunter said all the evacuees would be moved that night into one school, where they can get better service and where the police will not have to expend as much manpower for security.
"We were not prepared for this," Hunter said. "These people aren't supposed to come here."