President Bush declares Claudette disaster areas

Saturday, July 19, 2003

PORT LAVACA, Texas -- President Bush declared five Texas counties disaster areas Friday in the wake of Hurricane Claudette, while officials considered whether the storm's severity should be posthumously upgraded.

Claudette was downgraded to a tropical depression Wednesday, and by Friday its remnants weakened into a few rain showers over Arizona and California. But the National Hurricane Center said some wind measurements and damage indicate the hurricane was stronger than originally classified.

The disaster declaration in Calhoun, Victoria, Jackson, Matagorda and Refugio counties opens individuals and businesses who suffered damage to possible grants, low-interest loans and other assistance.

"The quick response from President Bush means federal emergency assistance will come quickly to Texans in the areas hit hardest," Gov. Rick Perry said. He requested that 10 other counties be designated disaster areas.

Also Friday, the Insurance Council of Texas projected structural and auto damage at between $60 million to $80 million, spokesman Mark Hannah said. He said about half the claims were from the Victoria area.

The hurricane center still considers Claudette, which hit South Texas Tuesday, a Category 1 storm, meaning its winds didn't exceed 95 mph.

According to the center, such a storm should bring "no real damage to building structures," yet along Claudette's path roofs were peeled away, trailers were flattened and building facades collapsed.

Category 2 storms are expected to cause scenes more consistent with what Claudette left behind, including "some roofing material, door and window damage of buildings."

The agency will spend the next few weeks studying and verifying data -- including some Category 2-strength winds -- before it makes a final designation, center spokesman Frank Lepore said Thursday.

In Robert Velasquez's mind, the storm that left him without power was not a minimal hurricane.

"I wish I had known at the time it was going to be a Category 2. I would have left here," said Velasquez, 46, of Port Lavaca, noting that he ignored local officials' evacuation suggestions.

"I guarantee the next time they say go, I'm going."

Lunell Martin, whose Point Comfort home suffered only slight roof damage, said she believes upgrading the storm means little. She said coastal dwellers always should be prepared for the worst with hurricanes, no matter the classification.

"To me it's a hurricane, and they really can't tell what it's going to do," Martin said.

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