Irene Sanchez sits on a cooler at the edge of an asphalt parking lot, stewing in the 100-degree heat over all the standoffs she's had with police officers in recent days.
Her 11-year-old son, Kevin, idly kicks a ball through the thick carpet of pine needles and branches left behind by the monster winds that lashed this town of 10,000 just north of Beaumont. Two younger kids drape listlessly over the seats of a Ford Expedition, doors and windows wide open in hopes of a breeze. Close by, the family's clothes are drying on a chain-link fence after being rinsed in a nearby creek.
"We finally had to go into the river to bathe," Sanchez said. "No one will tell us where to go. We ask the police maybe 20 times what to do, and they say they don't know. They say they will send help, and nobody comes."
Her run-ins with officials began Saturday afternoon, Sanchez said, on a windy exit ramp off Interstate 10 in Port Arthur, Tex. Hurricane Rita had just come and gone, and, after two uncomfortable nights in a truck-stop parking lot in Bunkie, La., Sanchez had nowhere to go but home -- or what was left of it.
But when her group of 10 family members and friends pulled off the interstate, a state trooper blocking their way was both unmovable and unhelpful, Sanchez said. "They said we couldn't go back into our homes," she said. "But when we asked where to go, he just said drive. Drive until you are out of gas or we are going to put you in jail."
An officer at the next exit seemed more informative, she said, telling them they could find a shelter in nearby Beaumont. But there, more exits were blocked by patrol cars and none of the officers could give them any advice but to drive.
"They just said that about the shelter to get us on the highway," said Oscar Valdez. "We just drove around until we ended up here."
Sanchez and her group are part of a growing number of displaced people wandering through back-road purgatory in a hurricane-damaged region that doesn't know what to do with them. In small encampments in parking lots and along roadsides, groups of people who have made it almost all the way home are adding burdens to some communities still awaiting help themselves.
"Prior to the hurricane, Lumberton was designated a pass-through community, not a shelter community," said Police Chief Norman Reynolds. "There are no shelters in Lumberton."
Local officers are not forcing any of the displaced people to leave, Reynolds said, but the town has little to offer them. Lumberton was hit hard by Rita, with massive trees down in every part of town and some buildings reduced to rubble. A swath of forest along West Walton Road was shaved bare by a reported tornado, with some houses invisible beneath tangles of rubble.
By Monday, city officials had not seen much in the way of assistance. The only distribution of emergency material had been from six tractor-trailers of ice and water brought Monday from Houston by a local grocery chain, Reynolds said. The line of cars stretched around the parking lot and down the street in temperatures above 100 degrees.
"That's the really first thing we've seen," Reynolds said. Except for a load of gasoline sent by the state, neither Reynolds nor Lumberton Mayor Don Surratt could cite any activity by Texas relief workers or the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the area. "We could use some help, sure. We've had to improvise a lot," Reynolds said. "But we understand these things take time."
Late Monday, Reynolds got word that FEMA was working to start a response center in a high school in neighboring Kountze. Still, he said, the best thing displaced people can do is get out of the affected areas. He added that he had asked the state patrol to tighten the roadblocks leading into the region.
Help has been coming from private sources. At one encampment of two families on Highway 96, a big white truck pulled over to drop off a gallon of water to a mother nursing a young baby.
"I just seen them babies and had to stop," said Randy Fuselier, a burly Texan from Bridge City.
In the market parking lot, Sanchez said no government or nonprofit relief worker has found them, but a local woman sent her husband on a two-hour drive to look for food for the group. And even as Sanchez spoke, a black pickup pulled up and a thin man smoking a cigarette beckoned them over. "Come get some meat," called Don Jones. "We got bologna, hot dog weenies, eggs."
With the power still out, Jones said he and a friend had collected perishable food from neighbors and were delivering it to stranded groups.
"More and more people are coming in," Jones said. "For Katrina, they had a shelter set up at the East Texas Christian Center and I thought they might do that again. I'm going to call Brother Vaughn and tell him that somebody needs to help these folks."