The New Saint John Missionary Baptist Church became the new home for Travis Johnson, as well as his wife and twin grandchildren after the destructive flooding of Hurricane Harvey. A commercial fisherman and 17-year resident of Port Arthur, Johnson and his family lost all of their possessions in the storm. The Johnsons were relocated to the church after the flooding and remain living there to this day.
Area churches like New Saint John and the Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church, whose basement flooded during the storm, along with religious organizations like Operation Blessing, became a haven of support and recovery for the residents of the resilient town. The storm left the homes of Port Arthur residents in ruin, and FEMA scrambling to record and inspect the many cases of black mold and water damage.
The churches in the area coordinated with each other quickly after the storm began to ensure the people of the community would have what they needed, as well as a place to stay. The pastor of Mount Sinai, Randy Vaughn, is a respected national pastor and was able to use his connections to aid both his parish and community.
Johnson, among other residents, turned to Mount Sinai for clothes, hygiene products and toys at the church’s free garage sale. A large crowd of children, parents, grandparents and friends met in the church’s parking lot, greeting their neighbors with a smile and a hello as they picked up the basic supplies for their survival three months after the hurricane hit.
The garage sale was coordinated by members of Mount Sinai and former Port Arthur resident, Graylnn Viltz, who is the vice president of the South Texas chapter of AT&T’s Pioneer volunteer program. The Pioneers have been active in areas all across Texas since Harvey, including helping with Meals on Wheels for the elderly and a toy drive for the children during the upcoming Christmas season. Volunteers from the church helped organize and distribute the supplies as they have done since the flooding began.
“Port Arthur needs the most help because they have the least resources,” said Viltz, whose sister and mother, who live in Port Arthur, sustained damage to their vehicles and home.
Port Arthur members of all ages came to the church in need. Families with small children and infants could receive toys and small Christmas trees made by members of the AT&T Pioneer program, while the elderly could pick up clothing and toothbrushes. Food and shoes were also available, and church volunteers stressed the need for furniture donations, as many Port Arthur residents now live without a bed to sleep on.
Also present at the Mount Sinai garage sale were representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA. FEMA agent Brian Montgomery, who has been with FEMA in a volunteer capacity for 12 years, has been in areas affected by Harvey since the storm hit. The deployment for Harvey was the largest in FEMA’s history, as well as the longest. FEMA is responsible for ensuring residents have a safe place to stay during the flood and ensuring homes are safe to return to after the homes have been gutted and inspected for mold. This leaves other government agencies, charities and religious organizations to make sure people have the other necessary supplies for survival.
Residents like Eldron Livingston, his wife Kayla and son Cody had to completely gut and rebuild the interior of their Port Arthur homes after being displaced for 10 days. Hazardous black mold is the main concern after a flood, so homes must be completely aired out, and all possessions that may have been infected by the mold must be thrown out. The Livingstons had to prioritize what to bring with them when they left their home, choosing family photos, and leaving the rest of their possessions to be destroyed.
“We saw drone pictures and knew everything was lost,” said Livingston, whose home among others in the neighborhood experienced nearly 10 feet of flooding. “We came back expecting to have nothing, and we were right.”
Members of Operation Blessing from Austin, Texas assisted the Livingstons’ clean-up, as they have been since the flooding subsided enough for volunteers to enter the city. For nearly 10 days, the I-10 highway was flooded and not open for public travel. Even FEMA was blocked from the area for several days due to the huge volume of water.
Accompanied by a group of Austin-area friends and volunteers, Nikol Madrid and her face-mask clad Operation Blessing team were the first people to enter a flooded home on 436 Drummond Street in Port Arthur. The volunteers began the long and difficult process of completely gutting the mold-ridden home. The large pile of damp books, cowboy hats, discarded Christmas tree and the rest of the possessions of the elderly woman who previously inhabited the now unlivable home serve as a reminder of the loss many Port Arthur residents are currently facing.
“This house is the worst of the four we’ve done today, and the worst I’ve seen overall,” said Madrid of 436 Drummond, who has been involved in the gutting of 26 homes. “The mold was up to the ceiling.”
The Operation Blessing volunteers have worked on similarly heart-breaking homes for weeks, sorting through the water-logged possessions of Port Arthur citizens whose homes and things have been ruined by the flood.
Today, Port Arthur looks like what you might expect a small Texas town to look like. Dry, hot and dominated by the menacing mechanical structures of the oil refineries that overshadow the town, and not much looks out of sort. Until you see the homes of the people of Port Arthur. The exteriors are lined with garbage and the material objects that remain show that people’s homes have been destroyed. Battered advertisements for construction companies and flood insurance are more common than the normal ads for the local Wal-Mart or beer company. Signs warn KEEP OUT while mattresses lay in the driveway of homes that have no doors or windows as they dry. Harvey hit the town hard from Aug. 17 to Sept. 3. Now, almost two months later, the people of the town are ready to forget the punishing damage and rebuild their homes.