Some Texas residents still cleaning up Hurricane Rita damage

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Construction and renovation workers are working double shifts to rebuild their town.

WEST ORANGE, Texas -- Sam Henry swept dead pigs off Highway 87 two days after Hurricane Rita tossed them there. Then his job turned really unpleasant.

He pulled double shifts for the Texas Department of Transportation, hauling trash and patching roads cleaved by uprooted trees. The long days worsened Henry's ailing knees but hastened the repair of vital infrastructure.

In some parts along the Texas-Louisiana border, it seems as if there never was a Category 3 hurricane that pummeled the region one year ago today.

The story on Henry's street is different.

In his neighborhood, a cluster of families working jobs like construction and maintenance, rebuilding the rural swath of southeast Texas has come at the expense of their own homes. Many are among the few still living in FEMA trailers that flank their tarp-covered houses, which remain neglected following long workdays.

Backlog of clients

"You can't work seven days a week forever," said home renovator Sheila LeLeaux, who lives near Henry and has a monthlong backlog of clients waiting for her to gut their houses. "Some days I want to come home and kick a dog."

Rita landed in Sabine Pass on Sept. 24, 2005, packing 120 mph winds that flattened the coastal hamlet before splaying into East Texas and lashing western parts of Louisiana. At least nine were killed after the storm roared ashore, and thousands of homes in the mostly poor and densely wooded path of the storm were destroyed.

But the destruction was a mere speck compared to that wrought a month earlier by Hurricane Katrina.

The Southeast Texas Regional Planning Commission estimates Rita residental damages at $2 billion -- far less than the tens of billions in damages borne by Katrina, but still a hefty price tag to area officials.

Already this year, LeLeaux and her husband have six times the number of home renovation jobs the couple contracts in a normal year.

"And it's only September," she said.

LeLeaux, 41, hangs drywall and rips out floors for about 10 hours, seven days a week. Her toenails are freshly painted bright pink but she's embarrassed that she has no time to touch up the gray roots in her hair. Nor does she have a spare hour to clean her house or wash the pile of laundry on her kitchen floor -- she now pays her mother $50 to do that.

The county still sorely lacks hourly wage workers because most low-rent apartment complexes remain uninhabitable. But repaired homes in West Orange outnumber the damaged ones, and Orange County Judge Carl Thibodeaux believes the county needs only about another year before the last blue tarp is peeled from a roof.

Thibodeaux, a former West Orange mayor, believes that some whose homes still require dramatic overhauls are the same residents who failed to keep up their properties before Rita.

"The storm has just magnified this," he said.

LeLeaux pays no attention. She said she'll eventually clear the wind-shorn trees and crumbled brick still piled high on her lot. She said she'll cook a meal again for her family, quit drinking the beer she sometimes opens before bed and cut back to just one pack of Marlboro Reds a day.

She just doesn't know when.

"Know how I relax? Relieve stress? I get a paint roller and paint a few rooms," LeLeaux said. "That's the easiest thing I've got going."

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