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Former county judge reflects on Rita


Last updated 9/22/2015 at Noon

Former county judge Carl Thibodeaux reflected on Hurricane Rita, which struck the Gulf Coast and Southeast Texas areas ten years ago.

David Ball - For The Record

Before Hurricane Rita hit in 2005, most residents didn't know what a blue roof was or a FEMA trailer for that matter. Since then, they have become commonplace terms in Southeast Texas.

The 2005 hurricane season is most remembered for Hurricane Katrina, which slammed into the Gulf Coast 10 years ago this week, killing 1,500 people and forever changing the city of New Orleans. But Katrina was only one of a record-breaking 28 named storms that disastrous year, according to a USA Today article.

In all, those storms caused 4,000 deaths and almost $160 billion in damage in the USA, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

In addition to Katrina, the other major hurricanes that hit the USA in 2005 were Emily, Rita and Wilma. The threat of Hurricane Rita, a few weeks after Katrina, created a calamitous evacuation of the Houston area and contributed to dozens of deaths.

Wilma, which hit southwestern Florida on Oct. 24, 2005, was the last major hurricane to hit the USA. It was also the last hurricane of any strength to hit Florida.

Carl Thibodeaux, former Orange County judge, was beginning his tenth year in the post in 2005 when Rita occurred.

As the storm neared the Gulf Coast, Thibodeaux received daily communication from then emergency management coordinator, Chuck Frazier. They were focused on where to set up the Emergency Operations Center in the event the hurricane landed here.

They decided to utilize Mauriceville Elementary School because there are no windows in the building.

The emergency management team received news briefs from the National Weather Service in Miami and Lake Charles. Thibodeaux hoped Rita would continue southwesterly and miss Orange County until it turned up the coast.

When they knew the storm was going to hit, they began executing the plans they drew up for recommended evacuations.

"We reviewed the evacuation routes, the transportation functions with the buses and the drivers, setting up an evacuation center at the new (Orange County) Administration Building," Thibodeaux said. "We triaged out people with special transportation needs. They were evacuated north to Marshall. We set those up ahead of time.

"We had agreements with Dallas County to evacuate our inmates there. There's no question it was chaotic. The citizens evacuated in their own vehicles. Nobody anticipated all the traffic on Highway 87 North. We learned our lessons then for Ike. We did the best we could do."

Though the emergency management team drew up plans on paper, they've never experienced a hurricane. Personally, Thibodeaux has ridden out three hurricanes: Humberto, Rita, and Ike.

"Katrina hit New Orleans which was an eye-opener," he said.

After losing electricity at the EOC post Rita, some workers from DuPont Sabine River Works repaired some generators for the main power grid so some of the equipment could be ran every two hours. Thibodeaux said it was similar to camping in the country.

In fact, the fiscal year budget for the county was adopted by candlelight and videotaped for the record.

"We adjusted as we went along. Nobody knew what would be the aftermath," Thibodeaux said."We made changes as we went along. Only those who have gone through a hurricane can know."

County residents were allowed to come back, but they were stopped at the county line. The citizens were not pleased, Thibodeaux said, because they wanted to get to their homes. They were let back into the county 24 hours later on the recognizance they were on their own.

"That was the only error we made. We felt it was necessary for the security of the citizens. But we realized the quickest way back on four feet was through the citizens themselves," he said.

The residents cleared out debris and helped each other. Thibodeaux said that was the best decision to let them back in.

"I'm really proud of the citizens of Orange County," he said.

Thibodeaux said he has no doubts the county recovered from Hurricane Rita, but nobody knew what a major hurricane could bring.

"Orange County was the hardest hit by Rita and we were the quickest to get back and be operational. Hats off to all of the first responders. It was a team effort," he said.

It was a team effort, Thibodeaux believes, because regional relationships were already established prior to the storm.

"All of my thanks go to the citizens of Orange County," he said.


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