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Cameron marks Hurricane Rita's 2nd anniversary

Cameron's recovery after Hurricane Rita moves in slow motion: nearly everyone still lives in temporary housing.

The post office operates out of a trailer.

The only bank in town does business out of a trailer.

Darlene Dyson makes a living by selling shrimp from a trailer. Then she picks up her 7-year-old son and brings him to their home: a trailer.

"It's not like it was before the storm, that's for sure," Dyson said.

Rita struck two years ago, Sept. 24, 2005, a Category 3 storm whose 120-mph(193-kph)winds and 9-foot (2 3/4-meter) storm surge ruined every structure in the southwestern Louisiana towns of Johnson Bayou and Holly Beach, bringing similar destruction to southeastern Texas.

About 100 died in Texas, including 23 senior citizens whose bus exploded during evacuations.

The storm caused no fatalities in Louisiana, but plenty of property damage in Cameron and Vermilion parishes.

In all, there were $5.8 billion (4.13 billion EUR) in property insurance claims in Texas and Louisiana, according to a Texas insurance group. In Texas, the storm resulted in 220,641 insurance claims that totaled $2.8 billion (1.99 billion EUR), said the Insurance Council of Texas. In Louisiana, there were 201,157 claims totaling $2.6 billion (1.85 billion EUR), the group said.

In Cameron, the parish courthouse is one of the few buildings that survived Rita. It was a town of about 2,000 residents. Local officials estimate today's population at about half that.

Those who have moved back, or plan to, have complaints similar to those of residents hit by Hurricane Katrina: the process of moving home is stymied by disputes with property insurers and paperwork from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Marvin Trahan, 46, a native, is hoping his lawsuit against his insurer will be settled this year so he can move back. The storm destroyed his three-bedroom house. He now lives in Lake Charles but wants to build a smaller, replacement house on his property in Cameron.

Trahan said the pull of his hometown lies in its small-town peacefulness, plus its proximity to prime hunting and fishing areas.

"You can fish here, you can hunt here, you can do whatever you want," Trahan said. "You can leave your door unlocked all night without worrying about somebody coming in. It's just a great place to live."

Living in Cameron is made more difficult because no grocery stores or pharmacies have opened since the storm. Residents must drive 50 miles (80 kilometers) north to buy supplies, on a two-lane highway that cuts through the region's marshland. Dyson drives 53 miles (85 kilometers) to Lake Charles every Monday, to buy her groceries and other essentials.

"That's 106 miles roundtrip," she said, "just to get a pound of meat."

Few elderly residents have returned, partly because Cameron still has no hospital; in emergencies, ambulances must drive to a medical center in Lake Charles. A rebuilt $23 million (16.37 million EUR) hospital is set to open in Cameron this fall with 20 beds.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco is set to mark Rita's anniversary Monday in Westlake and New Iberia, at events meant to highlight one of the lingering problems that has slowed the recovery process: a lack of qualified workers across southwestern Louisiana.

Anil Patel, owner of the Cameron Motel, said his business suffers from a lack of customers willing to pay $69.99 (49.82 EUR) per night for a room.

The motel had 96 rooms before the storm, which washed about half of those away. His clientele is normally made up of offshore workers, but the majority of his remaining 51 rooms usually sit vacant. Patel said he and his wife - who live in a trailer next to the motel - are struggling.

"I hope things pick up. But I don't know," he said.

One bright spot in the recovery is the Ice House Bar, which is thriving since it opened across the street from the courthouse early this year, in one of the few new buildings that isn't temporary. The tavern has pool tournaments every week, while patrons use the dance floor on nights when country and Cajun bands are playing.

"We needed a place like this," said Dyson, sipping a beer in the Ice House on a recent afternoon. "We needed a place to laugh."

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