After Rita: Signs of Life in Lake Charles, La.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We're going next to a part of Louisiana that is returning to life. Weeks after Hurricane Rita smashed into Lake Charles, Louisiana, the curfew has been lifted and 95 percent of the power is restored in Calcasieu Parish, the surrounding area. NPR's Lizzie O'Leary went to the Lake Charles area as residents start to rebuild.
LIZZIE O'LEARY reporting:
The good news about Calcasieu Parish is that the damage wasn't crippling and that's also the bad news as far as getting attention goes. Dick Gremillion heads the Office of Emergency Preparedness. He says just after the storm's impact, the parish slipped out of the spotlight.
Mr. DICK GREMILLION (Office of Emergency Preparedness): The national media was here for a couple of days and, of course, you know, this is not New Orleans, so we had things pretty well under control. There was not a big news story here, so we've kind of faded off the radar as far as the media goes.
O'LEARY: But drive around the parish and there's no forgetting that a major storm came through. Hundred-year-old pine trees are snapped in half, crumpled metal signs still lie in the roads and there are simply a ton of houses covered in bright blue plastic.
(Soundbite of an air hammer)
O'LEARY: On the corner of Brookfield Street, Harry Stevens(ph) is getting what's called a blue roof, courtesy of FEMA and the Corps of Engineers. It's part of a federal program to cover damaged houses for free with heavy duty blue tarps. The Corps has received 10,000 requests for blue roofs in the parish. They've filled about a third of them so far. Contractors covered almost all of Stevens' asphalt roof with plastic. He evacuated to Lafayette during Rita and says it feels a little weird to be back home.
Mr. HARRY STEVENS (Calcasieu Parish Resident): With everything torn up, you know, everybody trying to get back together, trying to get your life back in order. It still seems like a ghost town.
O'LEARY: Stevens' neighborhood does have an eerie feel. There aren't very many people and the plastic roofs seem out of place under what used to be tidy, middle class brick houses. Some of the coverings are clearly improvised and one neighbor has covered her roof with a Bud Light billboard. There's been some improvising on the government level, too. The parish had to set up a local call center to handle requests for FEMA checks. Though most people here got their money, 17,000 parish residents were denied their $2,000 because FEMA computers weren't set up to automatically grant them assistance. One of them was Mark McMurray, the parish administrator.
Mr. MARK McMURRAY (Calcasieu Parish Administrator): Well, my wife, particularly, is interested in getting it and is wondering why--since I was spending 16 and 18 hours a day here while they were evacuated, why we can't get the money, you know, so...
O'LEARY: McMurray says the operators are now fielding about 200 calls an hour. The center is funded by FEMA and designed to make sure the Calcasieu residents do get their money. Many people in Calcasieu are applying for government assistance for the first time. Gloria Gibson is waiting in line for food stamps. She's 75.
Ms. GLORIA GIBSON (Calcasieu Parish Resident): Never having to file for food stamps before, worked since I was 15 years old, this is new to me. I have to have my daughter-in-law bring me.
O'LEARY: Gibson is standing in line with about 50 other parish residents. Most of them have just come home to Calcasieu. Shimone Dupree(ph) cried on the drive home into the parish. Her mobile home in Sulphur took a beating from Rita. The siding was torn away, the windows were broken and her husband's car was destroyed. But Dupree waves those images away. She says she just got the chance to unpack. Her family's living off their FEMA check and they can't even focus on fixing the damage yet.
Ms. SHIMONE DUPREE (Calcasieu Parish Resident): You know, we've been bouncing back and forth between our family and just trying to keep our family together at this point. Our house can wait.
O'LEARY: Lots of people in the parish are still in wait-and-see mode. That's one of the biggest concerns for the parish leadership. They want to see people get back to work and are worried about filling service jobs in restaurants and retail. Many of those businesses are open only for limited hours because they just don't have enough employees yet. Kmart, Bennigan's, Taco Bell and Albertson's Supermarket are just a few of the places that have to close early. They've also all hung big signs in the windows just to make sure everyone knows that they're hiring. Lizzie O'Leary, NPR News, Lake Charles, Louisiana.
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