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.

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.