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As Houston Looks to Recover, Small Towns Now Bear the Brunt

August 31, 2017 1:04 AM
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NEWTON, Tex. — For the streets of Newton, a small town on the Texas side of the Louisiana state line, to become impassable, “the flood would have to be biblical,” Kristen Rogers was told when she peeked into the sheriff’s office looking for guidance.

“That’s what they said about Houston,” replied Ms. Rogers, who was looking for a dry way out of rural Texas on her way to Florida.

But as Houston, the urban behemoth that has so far been the focal point in the unfolding drama of Hurricane Harvey, began gingerly to assess the devastation, the storm marched on to conquer a vast new swath speckled with small towns and home to millions of people who were shocked anew by Harvey’s tenaciously destructive power. Officials faced a population in dire need, but far more difficult to reach.

Flooding and rain, topping 47 inches in some areas, pounded 50 counties in southeast and lower central Texas with a combined population of roughly 11 million people. More than 300 towns and smaller cities felt the storm’s punishing force. On Wednesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency began to send out heavy-lift military helicopters carrying tons of food and drinking water, delivering it to people who could not evacuate.

Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas said officials were “immediately deploying far more” members of the National Guard to southeast Texas, increasing the total Guard deployment to 24,000, including 10,000 troops from other states.

In contrast to Houston, where the weather began to clear and a few children even returned to playgrounds, many people in these remote areas are still in desperate need of rescue. “There are a lot of places that are not accessible by car or truck or boat, and we need to get to the survivors to get them critical aid,” said Deanna Fraser, a FEMA spokeswoman.

Pleas for help poured out of the Beaumont-Port Arthur area, roughly 100 miles east of Houston. “We are just as devastated as the Houston area,” said Capt. Crystal Holmes of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, which includes Port Arthur, a coastal city of about 55,000.

When officials there were caught off guard by the scale of the floods, and one emergency shelter started flooding, a MaxBowl bowling alley was transformed into a haven for about 500 people, the owner said.

For every rescue accomplished, Captain Holmes said, there seemed to be more people who needed help: “We have so many citizens that are trapped inside their homes.”

“Eventually we will” get to them, she said, “but we just don’t know if we’re going to be able to get to them in time.”

The police in Beaumont, near Port Arthur, said they had received more than 700 calls for rescue, and other departments were overwhelmed with calls for help. A mother died with her toddler, who survived, clinging to her body, and the number of deaths attributed to the storm climbed to at least 38.

“The geographic scope of this event is probably what is going to make it one of the most costly flood disasters in U.S. history,” said Samuel Brody, the director of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M University’s Galveston campus. “I’ve seen heavy rain, I’ve seen 30, 40 inches, but not over such a large geographic area, impacting rich, poor, black, white, you name it.”

Pastureland and swampland, cane fields and forests alike began to look like a mud-clouded, Texas version of ark country. Crosby, 25 miles northeast of Houston, faced not only flooding but the risk of an explosion when refrigeration that kept compounds at a chemical plant stable failed.

Michael LeBouef, a retired surgical assistant who lives in Port Arthur, said air boats, fishing boats and helicopters, operating out of the Walmart parking lot, were running rescue missions.

“The town looks like a lake, it really does,” he said. “It’s like the whole town got dropped into Lake Sabine.”

Even before it hit Houston, Harvey had already deluged a band of smaller cities. “What about the rest of us?” a man named Sam Stone posted on Facebook on behalf of the lower Texas coast towns Aransas Pass, Port Aransas, Ingleside and Rockport, which took the storm head on. “No jobs to go back to, no money, no transportation. All they do is sit and worry about what happens next.”

In Liberty County northeast of Houston, tiny Moss Hill — a couple of restaurants, a couple of churches — had become a refuge for people fleeing the water, which began to creep onto the highways about a mile from town.

Moss Hill is the highest point in the area, and the Lighthouse Church attracted a steady stream of people seeking shelter, while a trail of pickup trucks towing fishing boats passed through on the way to points east.

More than 20 people spent the night at the church. For the most part, they had fled homes nearby. But there was also a man from Florida who was rescued from his car and dropped off there. Newlyweds whose honeymoon road trip had veered horribly off course were given the nursery as a bridal suite.

Residents said they were accustomed to hurricanes and floods, but not of this magnitude. Patty Lee, welcoming visitors with soup, cornbread and sweet tea, ticked off all the towns nearby that were struggling: Kountze, Silsbee, Sour Lake.

“You’ve never had this before,” she said, “so how do you prepare for it?”

On Wednesday at the Simply Country Cafe, one of the few places open, B.J. Price said her home in nearby Batson had not flooded, but her property was engulfed. In the cafe, she got word that another friend had water up to the roofline.

Ms. Price said 1994 was the “only other time I’ve seen it like this, and it wasn’t on this magnitude.” She added, “This is the most catastrophic thing I’ve seen in my life.”

Ms. Price said she knew how widespread the storm’s toll was, and she knew that in the past rural areas like this one did not always get the most immediate aid.

“We’re not forgotten,” she said. “It just takes them a little longer to get to us.”

Rural residents insisted that they were used to being far from outside help and that self-reliance and an ethos of neighbors helping neighbors came with the territory.

The cafe in Moss Hill, for instance, sent pancakes and bacon over to the church on Wednesday morning, and some raided food from their own pantries, and even pillows off their beds, to donate.

In Bon Wier, Tex., people gathered at the Citgo, arriving by boat, truck or even dump truck, and helped others to a shelter in nearby Newton, where volunteers cheerfully divided up donated Clif bars and Fritos.

The shelter had been organized through Facebook and text messages, primarily by a woman who works in a furniture store. One family with a catering business was making a huge bin of pasta. “In an hour we really need to start thinking about showers,” said John Puz, another volunteer.

There, Ambika Seastrunk, a 38-year-old mother of five, waxed philosophical about the previous time she lost her home. It was last year.

But she got a new home, a double-wide trailer, that sits right by the Sabine River. It was a beautiful home. Is — or was. She couldn’t say.


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