FEMA Under Fire Again, This Time For Rita Effort

By JUAN A. LOZANO, Associated Press Writer

Saying they were caught off-guard by the number of people in need, FEMA officials closed a relief center early on Wednesday after some of the hundreds of hurricane victims in line began fainting in triple-digit heat.

The midday closing of the Houston disaster relief center came as officials in areas hit hardest by Hurricane Rita criticized FEMA's response to the storm, with one calling for a commission to examine the emergency response.

Across southeastern Texas, the Federal Emergency Management Agency delivered ice, water and packaged meals to residents who rode out last week's hurricane, which blew ashore at Sabine Pass in East Texas early Saturday.

But the agency was not ready for the roughly 1,500 people displaced by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina who sought help at the Houston center when it reopened Wednesday.

The center, offering help from a variety government and private organizations, initially opened for Katrina refugees. It closed last week when Houston was evacuated before Rita.

The line started forming Tuesday night, and as temperatures reached record highs, some people fainted and had to be carried off by police and other refugees.

FEMA spokesman Justin Dombrowski said the agency closed the center for the day because of the heat and the unexpectedly large crowds. Those already in line were allowed to enter. The center was expected to reopen Thursday morning.

Frances Deculus, 65, of Beaumont got in line at 3 a.m. and emerged shortly before the center shut down. She said that all she was able to do was register for FEMA assistance, and that she will have to return to actually get any help.

"We don't know what to do. It's frustrating. We have five small children," said Deculus, who is staying in a Houston hotel with 12 other relatives.

Dombrowski said FEMA is asking refugees who do not need help right away to wait a few days. He also encouraged refugees to register with FEMA by telephone or the Internet.

Local officials, including Port Arthur Mayor Oscar Ortiz and Jefferson County Judge Carl Griffith, whose county includes Beaumont, said FEMA's response has been inadequate.

Griffith said he has asked Gov. Rick Perry to set up a commission to study the emergency response to Rita. Congress is holding hearings this week on the federal government's response to Katrina.

FEMA spokesman Ross Fredenburg in Austin said communications between Austin and rural East Texas have been troubled, in part because of power problems. But he said FEMA had set up 27 distribution points in

27 southeastern Texas cities.

"I don't know what could have been done better since the materials were in place before the hurricane," Fredenburg said. "We're doing everything we can to get water and ice to whomever remains."

Perry, meanwhile, issued an emergency order allowing the utility Entergy to immediately erect temporary lines and plug into the Houston area's power supply to get electricity flowing to the hardest hit areas.

But it could take three to four weeks to restore power to those areas of southeast Texas where nearly all transmission lines are down and homes are so damaged they can't safely receive electricity, said Paul Hudson, chairman of the state's Public Utility Commission.

In rural Tyler County, north of Beaumont, volunteer firefighters distributed food, water and ice to hundreds of residents trapped in their homes by fuel shortages or by huge fallen trees blocking the one-lane, dirt roads out.

Firefighters are climbing over the trees to get to stranded residents until crews can cut the debris away, said Roger McGee, a firefighter.

McGee said the firefighters had been collecting the supplies on their own until Tuesday, when FEMA showed up to give them meals, water and ice to distribute.

"We're tired. We're wore out, but we ain't giving up," McGee said.

Ortiz said he expects to allow residents back into Port Arthur by the weekend, even though as of Wednesday, the industrial town of about

58,000 had no power, telephone, water or sewer service. Ortiz said it could take three to five weeks to fully restore electricity and phones.

Associated Press writers Pam Easton in Tyler County and Abe Levy in Port Arthur contributed to this report.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.

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