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Texas mayors say FEMA didn't deliver on promise to do better

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Texas—The day after Hurricane Rita battered his town, Nederland Mayor Dick Nugent called the Federal Emergency Management Agency with a simple plea: Bring us two generators.

Instead, FEMA showed up with a four-stall temporary shower. No generators.

Throughout Jefferson County, where Rita downed power lines and trees, knocked out communications and damaged homes and oil refineries, mayors and local officials this week voiced similar complaints. They said FEMA failed to keep its promise to deliver emergency aid and avoid making some of the same mistakes that followed Hurricane Katrina.

"There was a lot of frustration on all our parts," said Jefferson County Judge Carl Griffith, who spoke with President Bush on Tuesday when he toured the Jefferson County town of Port Arthur. "And hopefully our government will take a look so no American city will have to go through this."

In southwestern Louisiana, FEMA appeared to be doing a better job distributing essentials such as generators, food and water, residents and officials said. But many people complained they weren't getting financial aid quickly enough.

David Passey, FEMA spokesman in Texas, on Friday defended the agency's efforts.

"Part of the whole week has been an understanding process for many of these mayors—understanding how the emergency management system works," he said.

Requests go to the state and then to the federal government, he said, and some requests for generators may not have gotten passed to FEMA.

In addition, he said, before installing a generator for a building, a team must make sure that the building is safe and that the generators are appropriate.

The mayors of Nederland, Port Arthur and Port Neches, all in Jefferson County, said they had encountered too much bureaucracy while trying to get basic supplies from FEMA in Rita's immediate aftermath.

Griffith said Thursday that FEMA workers were in the area trying to deliver aid.

"People are on the ground busting their tails off, trying to do as much as they can, and I believe supplies are starting to flow in, but there have been problems," he said.

Port Arthur Mayor Oscar Ortiz, who escorted Gov. Rick Perry and the president around his city, said he was upset at the lackluster federal response.

"FEMA has once again dropped the ball," Ortiz said. "They make a lot of promises that they cannot deliver, and then you have to go through so much bureaucracy."

Ortiz said he made personal requests for emergency resources, but his appeals were answered with demands for paperwork. He was told his town would get a "point of distribution," where FEMA would provide military meals, water and ice. Port Neches Mayor Glenn Johnson said he expected the same.

But the distribution points never opened, the mayors said.

Passey said FEMA now has 32 distribution points in Texas, at locations determined by the state. He said a distribution point has been established in Port Arthur, but he could not confirm whether the state has requested that any materials be sent to it.

"We recognize that every mayor would like to have a point of distribution in their community, but it's just not possible given a system that's designed to be supportive of state and local governments," he said.

Ortiz, whose home was destroyed by Rita, said Thursday that the most FEMA had done for the community was to deliver two truckloads of fuel, which he said was gone after six hours. He thanked Valero Energy Corp., a regional oil refiner, for helping with the city's fuel needs.

"I've had to call FEMA's director to help get my people food and housing vouchers," Ortiz said. " I mean, come on, I'm in the state of Texas and I can't feed my people."

"It's baffling," said Port Neches' Johnson, who also asked FEMA for generators that never showed up. "They want you to fax requests to them for the things that you need, and it's like faxing it to a black hole.

"I know they are out there doing things, and I don't want to play the blame game, pointing fingers. But obviously there's a breakdown in the system, and it needs to be fixed. I've given up on them."

The picture was better in southwest Louisiana, where many National Guard soldiers and federal troops, already staged for Katrina, were ready to distribute basic supplies to the few residents who rode out Rita, or the many evacuees who returned soon after the hurricane passed.

Residents and local officials said speedy handouts of food, water and ice were welcome in the days after Rita.

Jim and Barbara Allee arrived after the closing of the National Guard's supply point at the Lake Charles, La., convention center, but two soldiers hustled to stock them with food, water and all the ice they could handle.

The Guard's FEMA-aided distribution of food and generators to a shelter in Elton, La., and a VFW distribution center in Lake Arthur, La., impressed many living in those towns.

"They've been moving quickly out there," said 28-year-old Elton evacuee Raysean Marsh.

Not everyone found aid close at hand, however.

"We rode everywhere and couldn't find them," said Kasie Citizen, a 33-year-old activities director for an assisted-living facility just south of Lake Charles.

Those stories seemed to be few, however, said state Sen. Willie Mount, a Lake Charles Democrat. "No one really seems to be complaining," she said.

FEMA, however, is trying the patience of residents trying to get new roofs and financial aid.

Sulphur, La., lawyer Jim Hopkins said he was told that the wait for a temporary roof from FEMA was two weeks.

"This isn't Phoenix, Arizona," Hopkins said. "It's going to rain within two weeks."


(White, of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, reported from Jefferson County, Texas. Friedrich, of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, reported from the Lake Charles, La., area.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-STORMS-FEMA

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