Game Wardens, Parks, Wildlife Areas Cope in Rita’s Aftermath – Lake Mohave

AUSTIN, Texas — Dozens of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
game wardens continue to deliver food, water, medical assistance and
peacekeeping support to East Texas counties still reeling from
Hurricane Rita. Meanwhile, the number of state parks temporarily closed
by Rita is down to four from about 20 two weeks ago. State wildlife
management areas remain open, but fall hunters are being urged to use
caution.

– Lake Mohave

Since the storm made landfall near the Texas/Louisiana border Sept.
23, close to 200 Texas game wardens from across the state have been
working the rural backroads of deep East Texas. About 60 wardens not
normally stationed in the region are still there and expected to stay
for weeks.

The Rita operation is markedly different than Hurricane Katrina in
New Orleans, where Texas game wardens used their flood rescue training
and equipment to pilot airboats down streets that had become canals and
pluck people from rooftops and second story windows. With Rita, they
are assisting sheriff’s deputies, local police and other authorities
with another game warden asset-knowledge of the rural backwoods and
experience getting to and helping people in remote areas.

“Rita involved primarily wind damage in some very rural and remote
areas in deep East Texas, whereas Katrina did more damage with water
and flooding in urban settings,” said Col. Pete Flores, TPWD law
enforcement director. “Because of our versatility, we were able to
respond to both. We had the equipment and know-how that was appropriate
for operating in the deep East Texas Pineywoods. Our knowledge of the
area also made the Rita search and rescue and peacekeeping mission more
efficient.”

Where Katrina grabbed and held international news headlines for
weeks with stories centering on urban New Orleans, public attention for
rural counties coping with Rita’s aftermath seems to have dissipated
more quickly.

“Rural populations are more scattered and broad, not as large and
concentrated as in the cities,” Flores said. “But needs of the people
are the same. They need help, and we’ll provide it, under the direction
of our governor.”

Game warden efforts have focused on the five hardest hit Texas
counties—Jasper, Tyler, Newton, San Augustine, and Sabine—where
electrical power has yet to be fully restored. The lack of power and
lighting has increased the likelihood of nighttime looting and crime.
As a result, game wardens have been on 24 hour patrol in places like
Jasper County.

“Last Saturday night we made 17 arrests in Jasper County for things
like drugs, thefts, disorderly conduct, basic everyday law
enforcement,” said Maj. Robert Carlson of Rusk, who has helped lead
TPWD’s Rita field operations. “It’s what game wardens do every day in
their home counties.”

Alongside the peacekeeping effort, wardens have spent hundreds of
hours delivering essential humanitarian aid to people in remote areas.

“Our most important contribution has been getting to the people out
in the county and providing MREs [meals ready to eat] and water,”
Carlson said. “We’ve been unloading trucks and Huey helicopters full of
food and water. We would order them out of the State Operations Center
in Austin and they would come in on National Guard copters. They would
fly in to the Jasper airport and we would load trucks and spend the day
passing them out.”

For example, on Sept. 28 alone, game wardens delivered 2,992 bags of
ice, 1,540 MREs and 778 cases of water to rural residents in the five
county region.

“One man in Sabine County had a disease where he can’t sweat and had
to be kept artificially cool, and he didn’t have any legs,” Carlson
said. “Game wardens went by and checked on him daily until they could
get him to a hospital. Another lady in her 80s didn’t have the strength
to hand crank her generator and she had an invalid husband, and the
wardens would go by and help her. That’s two people that I know would
not be here today if not for our game wardens.”

At other times, a small gesture could make a big difference in the lives of people struggling to cope in Rita’s wake.

“Two game wardens went to Walmart to buy crayons and coloring books
for kids they met while patrolling last night, and they’re going to
deliver those tonight,” Carlson said. “In some areas, we’ve been going
door-to-door just to make sure people are safe.”

In addition to law enforcement authorities, TPWD Wildlife Division
District Leader Gary Calkins of Jasper and a group of 12 district
wildlife employees provided Hurricane Rita disaster relief assistance
at the request of the Jasper-Newton-Sabine Counties
Multi-Jurisdictional Emergency Management Center to help search for
people affected by the hurricane in Jasper County. Under Calkins’
leadership, this group of 12 worked for several days under adverse
conditions, clearing fallen trees and debris from 20 miles of Jasper
County roads and checking house-to-house on the welfare of residents
impacted by storm winds and power outages.

The lack of power has also hampered efforts to assess damage and
begin cleanup and repairs in Texas state parks. Four state parks are
still temporarily closed because of Rita, including Martin Dies, Jr.,
Sabine Pass Battleground, Sea Rim, and Village Creek. These parks are
tentatively scheduled to reopen sometime in 2006.

“Right now we’re mainly in a security mode, keeping our sites
secured and people safe,” said Jerry Hopkins, state park regional
director for southeast Texas. “After Rita hit, we were anxious to get
cleanup crews into the parks. But midstream we had to refocus because
we had employees in parks with no water, no food, no gasoline-it was a
learning experience. Now we’re focused on securing those sites until
power is restored and we can begin cleanup and repair. Without power
you don’t have water and wastewater, you can’t run electric tools-it’s
a crucial first step.”

Another regional concern is simply getting state park employees back to work.

“About half of our region employees are on emergency leave,” Hopkins
said. “In some cases they have no home, since park residences were
destroyed. In other cases there’s no place to work or no way to get
food, water and gasoline in the work area.”

For the latest information about state park temporary closures,
people should phone the TPWD state park Customer Service Center
reservations line at (512) 389-8900. A complete list of state parks,
including a statewide map and regional maps showing park locations, is
on the TPWD Web site.

Several TPWD wildlife management areas are also assessing Rita
damage and beginning cleanup. The J.D. Murphree WMA near Port Arthur is
currently accessible to the public, although the office is closed.
Public waterfowl hunts scheduled there for November are expected to
take place assuming power is restored. The office is currently in
minimal operation using portable generators.

“Our staff are making huge sacrifices to live and work on Murphree
WMA while their families are scattered across the state living with
other family members and friends because they have no electricity at
their homes in the Port Arthur area,” said Len Polasek, TPWD Wildlife
Division regional director.

Polasek said Murphree WMA employees are in the process of surveying
damages to the marshes within various WMAs, but the effort is being
hampered due to the limited quantity of airboat fuel on hand. The staff
has so far been unable to access and check facilities at other WMAs in
southeast Texas, including the boardwalk at Lower Neches WMA in Orange
County and hawk tower at Candy Abshier WMA on eastern Galveston Bay.

All of TPWD’s WMAs and public hunting units remain open to the
public, but with a cautionary warning that hunters and other visitors
use common sense and good judgment to stay clear of possible unreported
hazardous debris. The TPWD is still assessing damage to WMAs in deep
East Texas north of Beaumont-Port Arther, especially the extent of
blown down trees which may require timber salvage actions in coming
months.

– Lake Mohave

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