For more than two days after Hurricane Rita laid waste to this small East Texas town, volunteer Fire Chief Steve Conner watched the relief convoys roar up State Road 105. But Conner's early hopes turned to frustration and finally to anger when truck after truck did not stop.
Evadale residents were sweltering in scorching heat without power or water. Meanwhile, tons of ice and food rolled through town at highway speeds.
"These FEMA trucks have to pass right by our fire station and go to the farthest end of the county, and we couldn't get any help," Conner said. "We just had to do what we could on our own."
Rita arrived on Saturday, but it took days for some of the hardest-hit rural communities, such as this town of 1,400 just north of the oil refineries in Beaumont, to receive help from federal or state emergency management agencies. Criticism of the slow response after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast had federal and state officials here promising to roll food, water and other supplies quickly after Rita made landfall. But with the promised aid slow in coming, many local officials in the path of the storm said they were fending for themselves in the first days after Rita's arrival.
Within hours of Rita's landfall where the Texas-Louisiana border meets the Gulf of Mexico, Texas and federal officials working in the state capital, Austin, said help was on its way. They said tons of food, water and ice, ferried in a long line of trucks, were on the way to a sports arena near Beaumont, where they would be distributed in nearby communities.
But many officials said the supplies were a long time in coming. Connor said he made repeated calls to Jasper County disaster planners, federal agencies and even local highway commissioners before two U-Haul loads of food arrived Monday afternoon, followed by two loads of FEMA-supplied water and ice. On Tuesday, Conner and several sweat-soaked officers were handing out cases of water and dripping bags of ice to a line of cars that snaked around a high school parking lot. An oak tree, snapped at the trunk, lay across the crushed bleachers of the football field.
Some affected areas received food and ice on Sunday. But it was late Monday before the Federal Emergency Management Agency had all 16 of its planned distribution centers operational in the nine-county disaster area. In some communities, overwhelmed police and fire departments said they had been left on their own.
"Right now, I feel like there's a system in place," Conner said Tuesday afternoon. "But they took their time. It was like they didn't know we existed down here."
Authorities in Silsbee, a town of 8,000 in Hardin County, offered a similar assessment. "Silsbee's just been left out," said David Norton, a beefy, buzz-cut police sergeant as he handed out boxes of food in a blazing-hot McDonald's parking lot.
Before two trucks arrived late Monday with food rations and bottled water, locals were desperate for help, Silsbee officials said. They took diesel from city school buses and pleaded in vain with state and federal officials for a replacement generator for the water system. Police officers, working 12-hour shifts, have been sleeping and eating in the local Wal-Mart.
"All the power people and state troopers have told us that Silsbee was the hardest-hit town in southeast Texas and we had nothing," Norton said. "There was no medicine, no FEMA, no Red Cross -- nobody."
FEMA spokeswoman Ann Seltzer in Beaumont said Wednesday that the agency has been supplying food, ice and water as fast as possible. Although supplies were brought near the area before the storm, it inevitably takes time to reach the hardest-hit areas, she said.
"We get as close as we can, but it doesn't do anyone any good if FEMA loses all its supplies in the disaster, too," Seltzer said. She said the 16 FEMA-supplied distribution centers were fully stocked Wednesday.
Some local officials and relief workers said FEMA had responded quickly. "They seem to be moving fast this time," said Ken Earwood, a member of a Florida-based Christian relief group, relocated from post-Katrina work in Gulfport, Miss., to Vidor, Tex. "Our coordinator made a call to FEMA about 3 o'clock, and by 7 a truck of ice and water showed up."
But with temperatures soaring above 100 degrees, two days of waiting for water was too long for many Rita survivors. Southeast Texans are used to blistering heat, but they are used to facing it with air conditioning. Powerless houses were like sweat lodges even at night, and with almost no gasoline, even cars' cooling systems could not be run. For many, the thick, wet heat is like a second natural calamity.
"It's just so hot," said Pricilla Parson, 35, sitting in her car at the Super Stop convenience store in Vidor. Her husband was waiting his turn to go in for sodas and cigarettes, and Parson sat in the truck, her cheeks flushed and her breathing labored.
"I have asthma that hasn't bothered me for 10 years, and now I can't hardly breathe," Parson said. "We don't know what to do. We got no money, we got no gas. I was $300 overdrawn before the hurricane."
Parson said she called FEMA's toll-free assistance line Monday to register for help. "They said to expect something in 14 days," said, tears beginning to mix with the perspiration on her face. "We got nothing left."
In Silsbee, Roger Martin, a City Council member and manager of the CVS pharmacy, said local storekeepers finally decided Sunday night to empty their shelves for an impromptu distribution of food and water.
"We were getting desperate," said Martin, 42, standing in front his store, its roof lying in a heap across the street. "None of that was pre-planned. We just all agreed that something had to be done, so we called our corporate offices and got as much as we could together."
The unprecedented evacuation from the region was a success, Martin said, but the slow response after the storm was not.
"The FEMA response has been awful," Martin said. "They don't even know we're on the map."
Not all Hardin County officials complained about the pace of relief. In the county seat of Kountze, Hardin's chief elected official, Judge Billy Caraway, said Tuesday that he was satisfied with the progress.
"Everything is going smoothly," Caraway said outside the county courthouse. On Monday, "they started bringing in ice and water, and the whole thing is beginning to come together."
But the county's chief of emergency management, Joe Blackmon, worried that relief materials were still out of reach for many residents of the 897-square-mile county. Without fuel, many did not have enough gas to reach the Kountze school parking lot where state troopers and county prison trusties were handing out food, water and ice.
"We need a county-wide distribution system," said Blackmon, 62. He said he had asked the National Guard for help in launching the effort. "All they would tell me is that they would pass it on. People don't have gas to get here.
"We've still got problems."