Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Look at Life in Orange County Texas

Vicissitudes of Life in Small Texas Town Are More Than Just Good Column Fodder By John Kelly Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I spent last week at Texas A&M University , mentoring 22 journalism students in the basics of my job. Their assignment: to write a column. As an incentive, I told them I'd publish my favorite in The Post. Many of their columns exhibited similar preoccupations: relationships, technology, anxiety over their futures (most don't have jobs yet). One column stood out. Krista Smith is a 22-year-old graduating senior from a southeast Texas town that, as you'll see, has had its share of woe. Speaking of woe: A lot of us worry about the future of journalism. Students such as Krista make me worry a little bit less. * * *

That's the number of times that Annette Bonnin -- my Aunt Nette -- has rebuilt her home in the last three years. That's the number of times she's sorted through her belongings, salvaging what she can before tossing the rest into the front yard for the disaster cleanup crews and scavengers to collect.
It's the number of times she's haggled with her insurance company, fighting for a few extra dollars that still won't be enough to return her home to the way it remains in her memories. It's the number of times she's applied for federal aid, either asking for a temporary home or requesting funds to finance her displacement costs.

Life goes on elsewhere, but for Aunt Nette and other residents of Orange , Texas , it is frozen in a cycle of waiting and frustration. The quirky city on the Texas-Louisiana border (the first taste of Texas or the last, depending on which way you're headed) claims to have 18,000 residents, though the population has undoubtedly shrunk since the last census.

Under normal circumstances, Orange would be yet another small Texas community that survived for decades amid the booms and busts of the lumber, shipping and, most recently, chemical industries. But these aren't normal circumstances. After all, there aren't too many communities that have endured the wrath of two major hurricanes in the past three years and bounced back quite like Orange . Sure, with the city situated near the Gulf coast, the threat of a hurricane is always present.

Hurricanes and preparing for them are a part of life on the coast. Residents know the drill: Stockpile bottled water, canned goods, flashlights, batteries, a generator (if you're lucky enough to have one) and the hurricane tracking chart that shows up in the grocery stores during the summer. And the preparation is not done in vain, as Orange has weathered countless tropical storms and depressions over the years. But even though the threat exists and even though they're on alert, residents never expected the landscape of their coastal community to turn against them. Because Orange is home. It is my home, my parents' home, my Aunt Nette's home, my grandparents and great-grandparents' homes. Mother Nature may terrorize us, but still we stay.

In September of 2005 it was the trees. The oaks, pines and sweet gums that shaded the city's streets were no match for Hurricane Rita's winds. They came crashing down in the living rooms, kitchens and garages of hundreds of homes. Rita, who rode in on the coattails of Hurricane Katrina, was the first major hurricane that directly impacted Orange in nearly 50 years. For the first time, the hurricane waiting game began: waiting, in shelters and hotel rooms, for the all-clear signal to return home. Waiting in a distribution line for ice and bottled water. Waiting on housing and financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And later, waiting for the visits from the insurance adjusters, FEMA inspectors and building contractors.

In September 2008, the weathermen warned again: Hurricane Ike was streaking across the Gulf of Mexico . Orange battened the hatches; Ike wasn't our first rodeo, and he won't be the last. But no two storms are alike, and Ike didn't let us off easy. The trees, for the most part, stood tall this go around. It was the Sabine River and the bayou tributaries that weave through the city that struck this time, rising higher than we had ever seen. When the brackish, contaminated waters receded, downtown homes and businesses were full of marsh grasses, debris and -- perhaps worst of all -- dead fish.

You wouldn't think it, but Orange is thriving. Despite recent layoffs at the local chemical plants, workers are in high demand. Dozens and dozens of homes still need to be rebuilt. New businesses, including several hotels, are going up along the interstate. The city's cultural attractions are blossoming, too.

But not all is well in Orange . Hurricanes, like most natural disasters, catch the eye of the media for a day or two, maybe more if it's a slow news day. Then the news moves on. The hurricane aftermath doesn't. It lies in piles and rots in the streets, waiting to be cleared. More than seven months after Ike, my Aunt Nette is still living in her FEMA-issued travel trailer, a trailer she waited on for three months. Hundreds of Orange residents are in similar predicaments, living out of boxes. Still waiting on someone, something, anything. But we are proud -- proud of our city, our home and everything it has to offer. That's why we rebuild, why we come back. Our patience is a virtue, one that has made Orange , Texas , that much sweeter.

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