Rita Survivor Families Approved for $2,000 Federal Checks

BEAUMONT, Texas, September 28, 2005 (ENS) - Victims of Hurricane Rita will receive $2,000 per family from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), President George W. Bush said Tuesday, the same amount as families hurt by Hurricane Katrina are getting. Water and power are still out across much of the region blasted by Rita, and rolling blackouts are widespread across Texas.

Bush travelled Tuesday to the areas of Texas and Louisiana smashed by Rita. At the Chennault International Airport at Lake Charles, Louisiana, the President said. "Those who've been displaced, those in the affected areas know that they can call a FEMA number to get a $2,000 check for each family. And that will help you in your time away from your home. So please call and register. Last night we made the decision that the people affected by Rita will be treated the same way, with a $2,000 check, as those treated - those affected by Katrina."

Bush has the same message for all evacuees - wait until state and local officials say it is safe to return home. Wait for the water and power to be turned on.

Texas has been experiencing rolling blackouts, that the utility, Entergy, said would continue until the extensive damage caused by Hurricane Rita is repaired.

Late Tuesday night, Entergy reported that more than 392,000 customers are still without power due to Hurricane Rita. Entergy has restored service to more than 374,000 customers.


President George W. Bush speaks with Texas officials following a meeting about Hurricane Rita at South Texas Regional Airport in Beaumont, Texas, September 27, 2005. (Photo by Eric Draper courtesy The White House)
Entergy expects to be able to restore power to customers who can accept power in Arkansas, Mississippi, North Louisiana and the Baton Rouge area by today.

Progress continues in Texas and some customers may be restored by mid-week, the utility said. Entergy has more than 10,000 linemen and vegetation workers, plus some 3,000 support personnel, committed to restore service following Hurricane Rita. Some crews reported an inability to move into the affected area Tuesday due to inclement weather.

Entergy’s transmission system has suffered extensive damage. There are approximately 290 transmission lines and 287 substations out of service but the exact number is yet to be determined. Both wooden and steel structures are damaged. The company said key transmission lines are out of service that will affect service restoration until they return.

Entergy Fossil Operations currently has 14 units in the area affected by Hurricane Rita. Of those 14 units, only two are running. Of the 12 units that are offline, the company says six are available for start-up as soon as offsite power becomes available.

"A very preliminary assessment of the distribution system shows many thousands of utility poles, plus poles, wire spans and transformers damaged by Hurricane Rita," Entergy said Tuesday.

Entergy has more than 10,000 linemen and vegetation workers, plus approximately 3,000 support personnel, committed to restore service following Hurricane Rita. Some crews reported an inability to move into the affected area today due to inclement weather.

Entergy concentrates on getting service restored to essential customers first - hospitals, police, fire, communications, water, sanitary services and transportation providers. The rolling blackouts should not affect these services, Entergy said.

But the company said the rolling blackouts would continue and could happen at any moment. "When demand for electricity exceeds supply, rolling outages, which we cannot predict, become necessary to ensure that even more damage does not occur," the company said.


DMAT personnel provide support to the emergency room operation of the Memorial Hermann Hospital in Beaumont after Hurricane Rita. FEMA DMAT units provide a wide variety of services in the aftermath of the storm. (Photo by Ed Edahl courtesy FEMA)
Rolling blackouts are most likely to occur between 10 am and 11 pm. Customers may have their service interrupted without advance warning for more than an hour. Individual customers may experience multiple outages.

With high temperatures creating extremely high demand in the area, Entergy has been forced to interrupt some customers for a much longer period of time, perhaps until late in the evening when cooler temperatures reduce the demand for electricity.

A the Southeast Texas Regional Airport in Beaumont Tuesday morning, President Bush acknowledged the region's suffering. "Obviously this area is hurt. The Governor knows that. I saw it firsthand how it's hurt."

The priorities, said the President, are first food and water, second electricity and generators, and third, fuel. "We fully understand that it's hard to maintain order if you don't have fuel for your cars and first responders," he said. Lack of fuel is also hampering distribution of food and water.

Generators stockpiled by FEMA at Ford Park, Texas were being distributed Tuesday to state and local government entities, but the FEMA process was still too slow, emergency response coordinators said.

The Beaumont "Enterprise" newspaper quoted Beaumont police spokeswoman Crystal Holmes saying that emergency management coordinators at her department submitted their request for generators before the storm began, and although the generators were at Ford Park, they have yet to receive one.

Griffith said the county requested generators and sent a list of building specifications the night the storm began. On Saturday, requests for generators began pouring in from hospitals, water treatment facilities and other emergency-management operations. Most of the "critical infrastructure" facilities knew the specifications for their buildings, Griffith said, but it has taken nearly four days before distribution began.

"FEMA will be on the ground in Louisiana and Texas to assist in this recovery effort for as long as it takes," said Acting FEMA Director R. David Paulison, who took over the federal emergency response after Michael Brown resigned under fire two weeks ago.

The former head of emergency fire response within FEMA, Paulison began as a Miami firefighter and worked his way up through the ranks.

Paulison said FEMA now has over 500 medical personnel in Beaumont, Livingston, Port Arthur, Nacogdoches, Woodville, and Orange, Texas; as well as Lake Charles and Alexandria, Louisiana . Almost 2,000 patients in Texas and Louisiana have been treated.

Voluntary agencies and the state of Texas opened 353 shelters that housed 108,047.

So far, 48 truckloads of ice, 49 truckloads of water, and 31 truckloads of food have been delivered to the Texas and Louisiana for distribution in response to Hurricane Rita, Paulison said.


Many streets in Lake Charles, Louisiana are impassable due to downed power lines and poles that have fallen across roadways, all caused by the passing of Hurricane Rita. The region will remain without electricity for several weeks. (Photo by Robert Kaufmann courtesy FEMA)
On Tuesday, 11 teams of federal and state disaster recovery officials visited Beaumont. The teams are there to be in contact with local officials, assess damage, provide information to victims of Hurricane Rita, and identify any special needs in the community.

In New Orleans, water levels continued to drop Monday and Tuesday in the city’s Lower 9th Ward as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the city sewer and water board pump water from the flooded area.

Water levels in the neighborhood have receded more than four feet since storm surge overtopped the Corps’ emergency levee repairs Friday. Current water levels in area range from two to four feet.

A team of Corps and Dutch engineers brought additional temporary pumps to the area Monday via barge to boost the city’s pumping capacity in the area.

"We continue to make great progress on unwatering the 9th Ward," said Colonel Duane Gapinski, commander of the Corps’ unwatering task force. "Getting the water out of the area and providing emergency levee protection is key to bringing life back to the area."

The Corps expects to have the water pumped out of the area by October 2, Gapinski said.

The flood waters that filled the streets of New Orleans after both hurricanes are now full of bacteria, viruses and other disease-causing organisms that could pose a grave risk to residents long after the waters have been cleared.

An experimental technology developed by scientists with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory holds promise for use in situations like this to provide a comprehensive picture of bacterial presence in the air, soil and water and enable authorities to track how that presence changes over time.

Using a square-shaped DNA chip called the Phylochip, the size of a quarter and packed with an array of 500,000 probes, scientists can analyze a sample for the unique DNA signatures of 9,000 known species in the Phyla of bacteria and Archaea. The analysis can be completed within 24 hours from the start of the process.


Foul smelling flood water is pumped from New Orleans streets by several huge pumps. (Photo by Marvin Naumann courtesy FEMA)
Originally developed for air sampling and still being tested by Berkeley Lab for the Department of Homeland Security, the Phylochip could provide scientists with what Terry Hazen, a microbiologist who heads the Ecology Department of Berkeley Lab’s Earth Sciences Division characterizes as "snapshots" over time.

These snapshots would tell officials whether specific populations of bacterial organisms are increasing or decreasing. Samples collected from critical locations would have to be transported to Berkeley Lab for analysis with the Phylochip.

"We can validate the possibility of natural biodegradation and determine which species of biodegraders should be stimulated," said Hazen. "With this information, appropriate treatability studies can be designed for determining the best and most cost-effective remediation strategy."

Teams from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are in the midst of their assessments.

In Louisiana, there are a total of 1,591 drinking water facilities that served approximately five million people. As of Monday, the EPA determined that 264 of these facilities are operational, 30 are operating on a boil water notice, 25 are not operating, and further information is being gathered on 1,272.

In Mississippi, there are a total of 1,368 drinking water facilities that served approximately 3.2 million people. EPA teams have determined that 1,247 of these facilities are operational, 83 are operating on a boil water notice and 38 are either inoperable or their status is unknown.

Fewer wastewater treatement plants are damaged, but the EPA says 35 of the 122 facilities in Louisiana are either not operating or their status is unknown. Four facilities in Mississippi and one in Alabama are still not functioning.

Operational facilities may still be in need of repair or reconstruction the EPA cautioned.

EPA teams are preparing to travel to all Superfund sites in areas affected by Hurricane Rita to do assessments. There are 16 such sites in the hurricane Katrina affected area of Louisiana, six in Alabama and three in Mississippi.