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DATELINE In the Wake of Rita BY FORREST WILDER n late November, two months after Hurricane Rita, outward signs of recovery in Port Arthur were in abundance. Many businesses had reopened and put “help wanted” notices in their windows; traffic signals were gradually coming back online; and every functioning hotel in town was filled with contractors engaged in rebuilding the city. Although damaged homes and businesses were legion, Port Arthur clearly had avoided the widespread flooding Louisiana and Mississippi suffered under Katrina. But while the citizens of Southeast Texas offer thanks that nature spared them extreme devastation, their relative good fortune has a drawback: They are forgotten. In more than a dozen interviews with citizens and officials in this impoverished waterside town, the sentiment that Port Arthur is still largely on its own cut across lines of race and class. “You get on the phone with [government coordinators for hurricane relief] and it’s New Orleans, New Orleans, New Orleans,” said Hilton Kelley, the founder of Community In-Power and Development Association, a nonprofit community organization focused on underdevelopment and environmental racism in the Port Arthur area. “I say, don’t forget about Texas. We’re living in the shadows of Katrina.” Deputy Chief of Police John Owens echoed Kelley. “You hear absolutely nothing about Rita,” he said, while watching a Fox News report on New Orleans in his office. “The only thing we can come up with is we don’t have enough chaos or citizen outrage.” But for those struggling with day-to-day survival, a devastating storm is like a kick when you’re already down. For many in the black community in Port Arthur, the weeks and months after Rita have been fraught with uncertainty and further confirmation that they are forever on their own. Being poor and black in Port Arthur \(blacks make up dealing with formidable obstacles: an unemployment rate that historically averages 13 percent; health effects from pollution-spewing petrochemical facilities that neighbor the low-income parts of the city; troubled relations between the minority community and the local police; and a general air of malaise and apathy among the citizenry that plagues any local activist who wants to change the status quo. These problems are, of course, not unique to Port Arthur. But where Katrina quickly made New Orleans into a case study on the ills of poverty in America, here in Texas, Rita exacerbated and buried Port Arthur’s troubles. In Port Arthur, it’s sometimes difficult to separate the pre-existing dilapidation from the hurricane’s damage. Downtown looks like a war zoneacres of empty lots where thriving homes and businesses once stood, crumbling multistory buildings, and streets empty of people except for a few men aimlessly standing on street corners. Just west of downtown lies the Westside, home to housing projects and a set of busy railroad tracks that demarcate the part of town where black residents were forced to move in 1911 as part of the city’s segregation policy. Here, blue tarpsmarking damage from the stormstill dot the roofs of shotgun shacks. Curbs are lined with neat mounds of debris and toppled trees punctuate the occasional yard. Just down the street from a muddy lot littered with rusting carnival rides and a few blocks from the entrance to the 3,500-acre Motiva refinery is the home of John and Gloria Jones. The elderly couple showed me the program from the funeral of their 36-year-old son, Tyrone Jones, who died on October 13, the day of his mother’s 74th birthday. The program is circumspect about the cause of Tyrone’s death, but the family is not. “They wrongfully killed my brother,” said John Edward Jones, Tyrone’s older brother. “They” would be the Port Arthur police officers who repeatedly used a Taser on Jones, causing his death, the family believes. The stage for Jones’ death may have been set on September 21, when martial law went into effect in Port Arthur and the surrounding area in anticipation of Hurricane Rita. The same day, city officials announced a mandatory evacuation order and a nighttime curfew. The curfew wasn’t enforced until the day after the hurricane made landfall and was lifted on October 10, according to Deputy Chief John Owens. He credits the absence of storm-related fatalities and minimal looting to the mandatory evacuation and the intensive police presence. He estimates that 75 percent of residents left before the storm hit, keeping many would-be looters off the streets and potential victims out of harm’s way. “During the evacuation, [Port Arthur] didn’t have a single fatality,” said Owens. Equipped with SWAT gear, including M-16 rifles, the Port Arthur police re-entered the city in force the day after the storm cleared. “We saturated the city with police personnel,” said Owens. The PAPD set up a law enforcement command center at the Holiday Inn in coordination with city officials and the county judge, as well as personnel from the FBI, DEA, ATF, Coast Guard, and the National Guard. The Houston Police Department “sent at least 26 officers per day to Port Arthur for 17 days,” beginning on September 30, according to a statement made by the Houston Chief of Police. HPD officers worked rotating 12-hour shifts alongside the Port Arthur cops. Even as residents poured back into town in the days and 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER DECEMBER 16, 2005