- Julie Chang American-Statesman Staff
The Beaumont area, 90 miles east of Houston, has seen hurricanes over the past decade rip the community to shreds. But city and county officials said nothing has compared with the wreckage left by Tropical Storm Harvey.
Between Aug. 24 and Friday, up to 49 inches of rain fell, covering rooftops in the northern part of the city and the western part of Jefferson County, breaking pumps that supplied water to the city and trapping residents in their waterlogged homes.
The devastation caused by Harvey is likely to surpass the damage caused by two major hurricanes that tore through Southeast Texas in recent years — Rita in 2005 and Ike in 2008, said County Judge Jeff Branick. Those storms caused extensive wind damage, but Harvey brought unprecedented flooding throughout multiple counties in the region.
The rain was “of epic proportions all through the night. I just kept watching the rain bands, and they weren’t moving,” he said.
Fifteen-minute trips between counties have turned into hours-long schleps as roads in Hardin County to the north of Jefferson have collapsed and floodwaters have inundated eastbound Interstate 10, cutting off access to Orange County.
On Monday, water had started to recede dramatically in Beaumont, but it still covered several streets within the city. Stop signs and rooftops barely poked out of water on some streets. On others, cars were half-submerged.
Ray Guillory, 79, weathered the storm in his yellow two-bedroom home in North Beaumont but left Thursday after his niece told him the bloated Neches River down the street was going to overflow.
Seeing that the house two doors down from him was still half-submerged, Guillory said he was too scared to enter his house for the first time without any rain boots. After reporters helped him into his home, Guillory became quiet as he stepped past a faint waterline a foot above the ground, through pools of water and soaked carpet, and pushed through jammed doors.
He had lost his previous home after Hurricane Ike tore off the roof. He rebuilt his house in the same location three years ago.
“There will be no living in it for a while; that much I’m sure of,” Guillory said before he dumped important documents and two pairs of reading glasses into a Kroger’s plastic bag and left. “I don’t know if I’ll be returning to this area again.”
Like many of the residents of Jefferson County, Guillory does not have flood insurance.
Branick said county officials are working with state and federal government officials to get evacuees back into their homes as soon as possible. Among the first steps will be tearing out floors and drywall from flooded homes and getting air conditioning back on.
Branick said once the Neches River level drops, officials will repair the main water pumps in the river so residents have full water service and no longer have to boil the water coming out of their faucets. A temporary pump has been installed to supply some water to the city, but it could take up to two weeks to fix the main pumps, he said.
County officials have requested antibiotics from the state to prevent tetanus and other communicable diseases because of standing water. They also requested airplanes to spray pesticide and curtail mosquito populations, which are expected to increase in the coming days.
Out of the county’s hands, however, is how long it will take refineries and chemical plants, a large part the economy in the region, to come back on line. Refineries such as Valero, Exxon Mobil and Motiva — the largest refinery in the U.S. — have had to shut down or suspend operations in Beaumont and Port Arthur, driving up gas prices across the country.
“We supply about 12 percent of the gasoline in the United States, about 20 percent of the diesel fuel, 50 percent of the commercial aviation fuel, 70 percent of the military aviation fuel — that’s why you’ve seen prices jump so dramatically at the pump because they’re shut down,” Branick said. “They’re all de-watering their plants, doing assessments of their pumps and mechanical equipment that’s on the ground.”
Branick said that at one point about half of 876-square-mile Jefferson County was under water. Small communities such as Hamshire and Fannett, southwest of Beaumont, became islands.
While county rescue officials were unable to get into those areas, hundreds of volunteers from across the state stepped up.
“It’ll restore your faith in humanity,” Branick said of the volunteers.
Shane Chesson with Hamshire Emergency Medical Services said within two hours of requesting volunteers on Facebook, 40 boats arrived in the town of 4,800.
“However they could get here, they did. We started running boat rescues and we did about 350 boat rescues … all day Monday,” he said.
On Monday, Hamshire homeowners and their families were starting the recovery process, ripping out soaked carpet and drywall. Up and down streets in the small community — which prides itself on not having one traffic light — were piles of water-damaged furniture, wood paneling and appliances.
Although seven days had passed since she and her 92-year-old grandfather escaped waist-deep water rushing through their street, Bonnie Campisi, 46, still can’t survey the damage in her home without being reduced to tears. Two inches of water entered the 65-year-old house even though it sits a foot above the ground on piers.
“It’s a family home, so it’s a little emotional for me,” she said. “A lot of it is gone. That’s what’s bothering me the most. As they keep saying, it’s only material things, but it’s not.”
On an adjacent street, 55-year-old John Hall, drenched in sweat, was taking a break from cleaning out his mother’s 2,000-square-foot home, which was flooded with 2 feet of water. He picked up his mother during the storm about 5 a.m. Aug. 28 after he received a frantic call from his sister saying water was rushing in.
On Monday, Hall had turned on the air conditioning full blast and several fans to dry out the studs of the house. They were still wet.
“Seventy years of accumulation” is gone, he said.