It’s only been three months since Hurricane Harvey devastated the City of Port Arthur and since Mayor Derrick Freeman’s viral Facebook Live stream showed his home completely flooded.
“When this hurricane hit, it was brand new for me. Also, it was managing expectations, it was managing emotions, it was managing people, managing personalities; it was a lot of things. It was hugging folks at certain times,” Freeman said.
Port Arthur is no stranger to facing hurricanes such as Hurricanes Ike and Rita, but Hurricane Harvey was by far the worst. After receiving over 53 inches of rain, and water from neighboring towns and drainage water, it will be a long road for recovery.
Mayor Freeman has been involved in the recovery from Hurricane Harvey since the storm hit.
Elected in 2016, one of the liveliest mayors of Port Arthur wasn’t ready for the obstacles the hurricane brought.
Born and raised in Port Arthur, Freeman is the youngest and first African-American male mayor of Port Arthur. Before becoming mayor, he left Port Arthur and lived in Los Angeles. He worked in the entertainment industry for 10 years. He then came back to Port Arthur and was involved on the city council.
During Hurricane Harvey, Freeman’s wife and children were with his mother-in-law in Austin, Texas. He stayed home during the hurricane, capturing all of the live footage and using social media, like Facebook, to communicate with the public. He also helped with immediate rescue efforts to people’s homes.
“I have a two-story house; my second story is where my kids’ rooms are. I was able the first week or so to sleep in my house. I just closed the door upstairs. It was cold; it was moldy and nasty. I haven’t gutted it out. But I didn’t have any other place to go, so I just slept in my kids’ bunkbed for about a week,“ said Freeman.
He didn’t leave his home until his mother insisted that he should live with her. So, for the first two months, he slept on his mother’s floor with a bed-spring mattress, while his mother opened her home to families in need.
Freeman’s home was completed full of mold and is currently gutted. He and his family are currently living in a rented home.
During the hurricane, Freeman said in the first couple of days there were 23,000 911 calls going to six telephone operation lines. At the storm’s highest peak, hundreds of missing person’s reports were filed, but only one fatality was reported during the hurricane in Port Arthur.
Emergency shelters flooded, moving people into nontraditional shelters like bowling alleys.
“We lost city buses, we lost city dump trucks, we lost city fire trucks…everything in our fleet operation went down,” he said.
According to the Freeman, 80 percent of the victims affected by the hurricane didn’t have insurance. Financial limitations are slowing down recovery.
Recovery could go faster, the mayor said. Hotel capacity is becoming fuller, so there’s been limited accessibility for victims.
“Another thing that’s been an obstacle has been working through the FEMA application. People can put a period in the wrong place and can be disqualified,” said Freeman.
According to the Statistical Atlas, Port Arthur is a very racially diverse city and described by Freeman as “a blue island in a red state.” The population is 24.6 percent white, 29.1 percent Latino, 37.6 percent black, 7.3 percent Asian and 1.2 percent mixed.
Freeman said that he believes government response to recovery has been slow. Ben Carson, the head of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), visited Port Arthur along with the Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott.
The recovery may take a few years, Freeman said, adding that he believes Harvey was worse than Hurricane Sandy but recovery funds have been less.
Port Arthur is home to one of the largest billion-dollar oil refineries in the world.
Mayor Freeman believes that global warming is one of the causes of Hurricane Harvey.
How does he rate himself as mayor? Freeman replied, “I give myself a one…I’m my own worst critic. I am not the person to ask, because I am hard on myself…every day I am learning. There’s always places where I can improve.”
A Port Author citizen, Kiara Wilson, thought the mayor could have done better.
“They wanted him out during the Hurricane. He ain’t at all going to be mayor again,” she said.
Disappointed in the city recovery, her younger sister wrote a letter to the mayor asking him to do better.
“I never been through a devastating hurricane like this. I don’t have anything to pull from. I rely on my faith heavily to get me through,“ said Freeman.
Mayor Freeman said he wanted to rebuild the city and build the economy in hopes to get people to stay and give back to Port Arthur.
Freeman’s son explained to him: “Daddy, the city got baptized. The old man went down; the new man is about to come back up. “