Close to 200 Texas game wardens were on patrol Monday to help maintain order and safety in East Texas, particularly in southeastern counties hardest hit by Hurricane Rita this past weekend. Meanwhile, five Texas state parks near the Louisiana border were heavily damaged by the hurricane, many others sustained moderate damage and some 20 state parks are still closed as teams assess damage.
About 100 Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game wardens normally stationed in East Texas worked throughout the weekend responding to calls for assistance and patrolling areas impacted by the storm. Another 50 wardens stationed in the Beaumont-Port Arthur region focused on that hardest hit area. And close to 50 game wardens from across West and North Texas have also been called to East Texas. All Texas agencies working Rita response are being coordinated through the Governor's Emergency Management Office.
Game wardens have special training, boats and equipment to aid in flood rescues, but maintaining law and order has emerged as another key task in Rita's wake. Communities left mostly empty by evacuations and the lack of fuel, water and power for lighting had increased the possibility of looting.
An additional 50 game wardens were deployed Sunday to four storm-ravaged counties where local officials had expressed public safety concerns: Jasper, Newton, Sabine, and Tyler.
"There was a concern that looting would increase at nighttime," said Lt. Col. Craig Hunter, who helped organize TPWD's efforts from the state emergency center in Austin. "We had a report of a bank burglary Sunday morning in east Texas, and there were some reports of localized looting."
Hunter said game wardens arrested four people Jasper on Sunday for looting. Also in that area, wardens used boats to evacuate 26 elderly people from a nursing home threatened by rising floodwaters.
On Saturday afternoon, game wardens, sheriff's deputies, state troopers, and local fire rescue workers evacuated some 1,500 people from housing subdivisions below Lake Livingston dam north of Houston, where Rita's waters had compelled authorities to release a high volume of water, causing flooding. Game wardens ferried nine boatloads of evacuees to safety in the area late Saturday.
Texas state parks suffered widespread facilities damage across East Texas, although no one was hurt.
About 30 families were evacuated from Lake Livingston State Park shortly before high winds and heavy rains began lashing the area late Saturday. Park peace officers and game wardens evacuated the families to a school that had been converted to a shelter nine miles away.
"Most of those families were hurricane evacuees who were road-weary and worn out after plowing through traffic from Houston, and many of them did not want to leave, but I was certainly glad we did evacuate the park," said Brent Leisure, state park regional director for eastern Central Texas. "There were many, many big trees that blew down all over that park and several downed power lines."
Leisure helped lead a disaster response team for TPWD's State Parks Division that involved dozens of employees. Several regional directors and others monitored the storm and coordinated statewide efforts from Bastrop State Park. Recovery teams that had prepared in advance began field work Sunday and Monday. Fifty state park employees have been deployed to provide security for park resources, assess damage and begin initial cleanup and stabilization.
Five state parks near the storm's direct path were heavily damaged. These include Sea Rim, Sabine Pass, Village Creek, Lake Livingston and Martin Dies, Jr.
The hardest hit was Martin Dies, Jr. State Park just west of Jasper, where division employees described the damage as "catastrophic." The hurricane blew down dozens of trees, blocking access along all roadways and causing extensive damage to facilities and structures. Impacts include minor roof damage to seven buildings; major roof damage to one cabin, one restroom, the park nature center and six screened shelters; and structural damage to the assistant manager's residence. Three screened shelters and two host camp sites were destroyed.
At Sabine Pass Battleground State Historic Site, where about $2 million in facility improvements was done in 2004, 16 new shade shelters and the park residence were destroyed. According to reports, the storm also "completely eroded" a concrete bulkhead along the Sabine River/Ship Channel, posing the threat that it could lean or fall toward the channel. TPWD had rebuilt 1,400 feet of the bulkhead in 2004, adding handrails and making it wheelchair-accessible, with breaks in the rails to provide fishing and overlook stations.
At Sea Rim State Park on the beach near Port Arthur, teams reported "severe, widespread damage." This includes minor damage to the park residences and wastewater plant; major damage to the state park maintenance area and boat barn.
At Village Creek State Park northeast of Houston, although manmade structures were relatively undamaged, reports said the widespread debris "will take a commercial salvage operation before the site can be cleared enough to re-open the park."
Lake Livingston State Park, like many other parks across forested East Texas, had many downed trees. Managers say earlier evacuations and park closures helped prevent injuries and damage that can result from storm-blown trees and large limbs. At Lake Livingston, as in other parks, cleanup and debris removal is already underway.
At TPWD's Sea Center Texas in Lake Jackson, the combination fish hatchery and visitor aquarium center lost 97 percent of its red drum, spotted seatrout and flounder broodfish when water temperatures soared after backup power generators failed. The good news is fish in the front aquariums which are accessible to visitors somehow survived the power outage.
Employees from TPWD's Infrastructure, State Parks, Wildlife, Coastal and Inland Fisheries divisions began meeting Monday to devise plans to assess damage to various agency sites and begin prioritizing repairs. Although it's too early to say what the cost will be, it is expected to be significant.
Currently, 20 Texas state parks are closed temporarily because of the hurricane. Some are expected to begin reopening this week, starting Tuesday. State parks continue to provide free entry and campsites to hundreds of evacuees.
For the latest information about state park temporary closures and state parks able to host hurricane evacuees, 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.