June 2 , 2006
By Mike Barnett
Nearly 10 months after Hurricane Rita spent her fury on far East Texas and western Louisiana, those who live in and near the small town of Kirbyville still pick up the pieces.
Gone, for the most part, is the evidence of widespread devastation spawned by the storm's deadly winds and killer tornadoes. Massive clean-up efforts have brought a sense of normalcy back to the most parts of East Texas hit by the storm. Look closer, however, and ugly scars remain.
Many house roofs, topped by bright blue tarps, await contractors to repair the damage. Put off for "fixin' later" are barns with sides blown out or tops blown off. Dried up, brown, blown down trees dot pastures waiting for termites to chew them up or a bulldozer or a chain saw crew to get to work.
"Whenever you look around at our neighbors and friends, they still live in FEMA trailers or have roof tarps on their houses," said Elinor Smith, who runs a Vermeer dealership with her husband, Charles, near Kirbyville, which was in the direct path of the storm. ""Maybe they're having to live on air mattresses in different rooms of their house because they haven't been able to get a contractor in there to do their bedrooms or roofers to come put roofs on their houses."
For many of the Smith's customersmainly cow/calf operatorsRita's passage only compounded problems caused by the dry weather that gripped East Texas and all parts of the state last year.
"Things were bad before the hurricane because of the drought," Smith recalled. "Our customers weren't getting the hay they needed and since then it has been even worse because we've all been having to deal with the clean up, and what our insurance providers didn't do for us, and what the federal government didn't do for us, and people that were trying to rip us off. Our business...the winter customers we're used to getting through December, January and February... we're just getting them now because they've been trying to take care of their problems at home."
The timber industry, struck hard by the storm with millions of dollars in damages, is also on the road to recovery.
"Overall, the recovery process went fairly smooth in Texas," said Texas Forestry Association Executive Director Ron Hufford. "We had some teams in place to work with state government, industry and landowners and we kept the information out to our members on who was salvaging timber, who they could contact. All of that seemed to work very, very smoothly."
Hufford said the recovery process on the pine has pretty much come to a halt.
"The pine that's still on the ground is starting to deteriorate," he said. "The stuff that was taken off the ground, taken to the mills and put under water is in pretty good shape."
Hufford said that reforestation recovery effort, however, is going to take many years. Too many people, he noted, suffered devastating loss of personal items and will have to replace homes, barns and cars before they can even begin thinking about replanting trees.
Those individual stories of lost dreams and livelihoods are the legacy of Hurricane Rita.
"I had a landowner up here that lost everything," Hufford said. "Their property was near Beaumont and they were right in the path of the storm and their forest is gone. When you're 60-years-old, to make the decision to put that money back in the ground when you've lost everything, is very difficult."
Rice farmer and crawfish grower John Gaulding said if there was a "right" side to Rita, he was on it. The eye of the hurricane went through Beaumont and Orange. Gaulding, however, who farms between Winnie and Beaumont, was on the weaker side of the storm.
Gaulding said local farmers were fortunate in that their first rice crop was harvested.
"Some of us had a second crop in the field that was definitely damaged by the hurricane itself," he said. "I'd say at least 50 percent damage or even more. We had a lot of fence damage, trees falling on fences, roof damages on barns, but overall we were very fortunate in the damages that occurred."
Hit hard, though, was Gaulding's crawfish business.
"Our crawfish production is probably as little as a third of what we normally catch," he said.
Although the current rice crop shows no effect from the hurricane's wrath, Rita's legacy for farmers was its impact on the oil industry and the skyrocketing price of diesel and fertilizer because of those problems and oil shortages.
"All of those expenses have been very high this year and that impact is hurting more on this year's crop than the hurricane," he said. "It's anybody's guess if that's ever going to be corrected or not...if we'll ever see low fuel prices again."
Gaulding echos what others say about the lack of government response to farmers and ranchers in helping with recovery efforts or even "just reaching out to us in any way."
"I see the large amount of money that's being spent, especially in the city of New Orleans," he said. "It's not that they don't need help. But I see that expense going out and nothing virtually coming to the farmers at all."
Gaulding is a grateful recipient, however, of funds donated from farmers and ranchers across the nation for hurricane relief through American Farm Bureau Federation fund raising efforts.
Texas Farm Bureau dispensed $115,741.27 to members who were also agricultural producers that had suffered unreimbursed losses from Hurricane Rita.
"The federal government could learn a few things from Farm Bureau when it comes to helping folks in a disaster," Gaulding said.
Elinor Smith was also a recipient of Farm Bureau help.
"We are saving to get a bulldozer in here to clean up the mess (many trees, including 20 prize pecan trees, down)," she said. "These funds will help with that. We've got a long way to go, but the assistance from Farm Bureau, Red Cross and the Baptist Church has been all we've been able to get."