“I hope Ethan is ready when we get to Sandburg,” said Hailey, as she got out of her car to open the trunk for my awaiting backpack.
I got into the passenger seat of her station wagon and cracked open an energy drink. It was 5 o’clock in the morning, and we had to pick up three more of our fellow travelers before leaving Milwaukee to our long dark trip to O’Hare. I haven’t had a single minute of sleep in 18 hours and a had a long day ahead of traveling. I despised the mornings as my average wake up time was closer to noon and a minute before I was weary and not in the mood to do anything. To avoid that, I elected to not sleep at all and save it for the flight and the next night. Soundgarden was blaring from Hailey’s speaker as we made our way to the dorms. After waiting a few more minutes that we would’ve liked Ethan emerged from the dorms hauling a suitcase, his backpack, a camera bag and a tripod bag. He got into the backseat and muttered in complete worry, “I hope I can bring my camera stuff on the flight.” As Hailey’s speaker continued to play various rock, punk and grunge music of the 1990’s and 2000’s, we commenced to pick up Joel and Tess, the final two members of our carpool quintet. When everyone got into the car, and we made our way to the highway we all talked about our measly college lives, along with our hopes and aspirations for the trip. We got on the highway southbound, and I waved my city behind, I was beginning my journalistic experience.
Southeast Texas was our final destination. Twenty-one of my fellow journalism students and I at the fabulous University of Wisconsin Milwaukee were given the opportunity to cover the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, a nasty storm that happened over two months prior and that devastated the area. It was a rather ambitious trip planned, bringing 19 college students 1,186 miles south for three days, but we were responsible adults and passionate journalists who wanted to cover a real occurrence. Also, the hotels were paid for, and flights were only $80 round trip.
I really didn’t want to go. I was broke and completely swamped in end-of-the-year school assignments. Since it was a rather cheap trip, I couldn’t refuse going to a place like Southeast Texas.
The night before after I got out of work at 10 p.m., I slammed my first energy drink, got home, made some dinner, and got to work on a paper for class that was due the next day which I was traveling. After finishing my masterpiece at 2 a.m., I packed for the trip, which was only a backpack full of two changes of clothes, some toiletries and a notebook. I made some tea and waited a couple hours for Hailey to pick me up.
After successfully landing and navigating through the “marvelous” George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, we went and waited at the car rental building as we had to drive to Port Arthur. While waiting, we were approached.
“Do you love Jesus?” said one person.
“Only accepting Jesus will prevent you from going to hell. You don’t want that do you?” she explained.
After a long, long, long silence, she moved on. saying we should all pray.
After waiting for what seemed an eternity in the parking garage, we were finally free and in Texas. Driving down the highways, I noticed several things about Texas. Everyone either drove trucks or SUVs, there are cars literally everywhere, and people are not afraid to drive the way they want to drive. If someone wants to fly 100 mph down the freeway, they will do it. Also, once we got well outside of Houston southbound, there is a vast expanse of open space that tells how big Texas really is. Open land as far as the eye can see for miles and miles and miles.
We eventually made it to Port Arthur. If oil and boats had its own capital city, Port Arthur would be that as there was oil rigs and refineries anywhere you looked. Before going to the hotel, we decided to explore where we stopped at a gas station.
While I was purchasing garlic bread flavored potato chips and crawfish pie, which I soon discovered wasn’t very good to eat, we talked to a local, who said he experienced seven hurricanes and swam in all of them. Instantly when I saw him, I thought he looked like a Texan Walter Sobchak from the classic, The Big Lebowski. The man whose name was Chuck was extremely kind and open like the holy Bible he probably kept in the glove box of his pickup truck. He offered to show us around Port Arthur and bring us to some of the rougher flood-hit areas, an offer we couldn’t refuse.
We followed his pickup through the back roads of Port Arthur until we reached a small Catholic church which had a sign out front that read, “Abortion is the greatest example of child abuse.”
We all got out where he stood in front of a 10-foot statue of Jesus with his arms spread out. He explained the flood waters were as high as Jesus’ arms and that he was a trained rescuer even though rescuing wasn’t his occupation. He spoke of all the houses he swam into, and people he rescued from sure drowning, hypothermia and dysentery. He also spoke of the future of Port Arthur.
“We’ve had seven major storms in the last 10 years,” said Chuck. “This place is uninhabitable, and people should get out as soon as possible. They won’t, though.”
We continued to follow him to a neighborhood in which every house was still severely damaged by Harvey. We got out to explore and talk to some of the locals. There were houses completely gutted, missing roofs and missing walls. Garbage and debris were everywhere. I walked into an empty house as the front door was completely destroyed. Being completely dark, I noticed it became a habitat of mosquitoes, spiders and mold.
I walked a block to where people were working on their houses and cleaning up. I talked to a man who was a contractor.
He said he didn’t live there but was helping out.
“People need some serious help to recover, and there’s been price gouging by some who only want to take advantage of people who have already suffered. I’m from here, and I only want to help these people out.”
Another man told me that he and his family were told not to evacuate, but, as the flood waters rose, they were forced to into their attic where they had to wait to be rescued.
It was getting dark, and Chuck told us we should get going as the mosquitoes would get very bad, and on cue, when the sun fell, they did. We and Chuck went our separate ways as we made our way to the hotel. By all accounts, Chuck is a hero who chose to save people in need out of the goodness of his heart, and he furthered that by showing us Wisconsinites around and telling his story.
The first floor of the hotel was completely under construction and gutted out from flood damage, but the rooms we stayed in on the floors above were not. It still reeked of a bathroom after the user only used a spray of Febreze to cover the smell and a high-school football team locker room, but it was a fine place to stay.
The next morning, we all embarked in separate groups to look around Port Arthur and talk to people. After a breakfast of donuts, we decided to stop at the fire station because who would be better at knowing flood rescue than a Port Arthur fireman. After surprising the fire chief with our appearance and requesting some time to ask questions, he gladly brought us to a classroom with some firefighters.
“Our station was one of few places that was dry,” said one of the firefighters. “Our stations were getting thousands of calls in a span of 24 hours and were overwhelmed. One of our trucks broke because of the high waters, and we had to get out and swim all the way back to the station. I only got six hours of sleep in the week Port Arthur was underwater. A lot of the people whose houses were flooded didn’t want to leave. You can say we southerners can be stubborn at times.”
“The water was full of bacteria, and it all gave us terrible rashes that felt like thousands of ants crawling on our bodies,” said another. “Our station was getting too many people looking for dry land, so we had to break into a bowling alley a mile down the road at 4 a.m. so people had a dry place to stay.”
Our next lead.
After the questioning, suddenly, it became a second-grade class field trip as they gladly showed us around their station. I tried on their fire equipment/gear which took me much longer than the record 52 seconds it took them. They also took us high up in their cherry-picker. One of the firefighters told me he often goes up to my hometown of Appleton Wisconsin to icefish, eat good food and go to Green Bay Packer games 30 minutes north.
We spent our entire morning and some more at that fire station and had an enjoyable yet eye-opening time experience. The firemen were all super awesome, heroic people who risked their own well-being for the lives of others. I have also yet to meet a Texan who wasn’t kind and open to telling their story.
We made our way to Max Bowl, the bowling alley the firefighters spoke of that was broken into and used as a dry shelter. It was in a nicer part of town where most of the area didn’t get flooded. We asked some questions to the lady at the register who was working when the alley was a shelter.
“The owners were not happy at first but soon understood because people needed a dry place to stay,” she said. “Every square-foot including the alleys was covered by a bed or by one of hundreds of people. People brought in their pets with the oddest being a monkey, and we just had to wait until the water receded.”
She went on to show us around including a giant room where concerts were held that people stayed in. Still not an unkind person I haven’t met.
After eating dinner, we went back to the hotel and prepared to go home the next day. The next morning, a new carpool group I was in went to Wafflehouse, my first time. Wafflehouse was glorious in every conceivable way, and it made me jealous of the south for having such a chain of establishments. On our way back to Houston, we stopped at the only thing better than Wafflehouse, Buc-ee’s. Buc-ee’s is basically a gas station the size of a Walmart, aka the most Texas thing one could ever imagine. When I walked in, I froze for a solid 20 seconds with my mouth agape because I couldn’t comprehend this place actually existed in the same universe I was in.
We made it back to George Bush Intercontinental Airport and got on our plane back to Chicago. I was more fortunate on the flight back as the aisle next to me was completely empty. I occupied it and laid down for the entire flight. A trip with both the worst and best flights of my life.
After landing back in the frigid cold abyss known as the Midwest, we drove back home to Milwaukee.