It’s a quiet night on the last day of November, and the air, thick with grit and ash, belies the sight behind the Texas Southeastern town of Port Arthur.
That sight was a city of amber and pyrite with mystical pink fire streaming from what could be chimneys. Yet the “city” was actually home to an industrial conglomerate, and those “chimneys” were fire stacks, built to burn by-products from the oil and chemical refining processes. Port Arthur is smack in the middle of America’s infamous “cancer belt.”
Nineteen students from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee flew into Texas to find out just how hard Hurricane Harvey hit this city of Port Arthur, a community nestled inside Texas’ Golden Triangle nearly 90 miles east of Houston and plagued by natural and unnatural disasters. They found twin tragedies: The refineries that produce a significant portion of the nation’s gas supply, filling the air with potential poison that wafts through the mostly African-American neighborhood behind them, and the mold and destruction left behind by the receding and some say Biblical flood waters of Harvey.
Port Arthur houses the nation’s largest refinery, Motiva; it’s owned by the government of Saudi Arabia. One-quarter of the United States’ crude oil refining ability emanates from the Texas Gulf Coast, but, in the wake of Harvey, it wasn’t hard to find climate change advocates among the region’s residents, including the mayor. “Oh, I absolutely believe it (climate change) is real,” Mayor Derrick Freeman says. “When you look at our oil and fossil fuel use, especially here, I have a hard time believing that isn’t the case.” He spent part of Harvey on Facebook Live, wading through his flooded home, and alerting the world to the fact that Port Arthur was almost entirely underwater.
Harvey swept through the Texas Gulf Coast, initially touching down in Rockport before hovering for several days and whipping through the state with Category 4 winds of 130 mph. The storm which followed dumped the equivalent of five feet of water on parts of Texas between Aug. 26 and 30. Three months later, the national TV cameras may have moved on (to Irma and Puerto Rico, Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs), but the people in the Golden Triangle (and towns like Beaumont, not just Port Arthur) are, in many cases, living like refugees in their own land.
They are still fashioning homes out of RVs, their garages, churches, and hotels in this damaged panorama where the spirit of resilience rages strong, but FEMA is harder to find than church-group volunteers, save for the man with a clipboard at a religious rummage sale (however, the federal agency has dispensed more than $500 million to more than 360,000 people). Meanwhile, the refineries churn out untold wealth that goes elsewhere, including overseas, satisfying America’s thirst for energy.
The Austin Disaster Relief Network reported that over 4,000 cars were destroyed in Port Arthur, leaving 123 families without transportation to their full-time employment and, currently, nearly 500 homes are in need roof repairs as residents literally live without a complete roof over their heads.
The scope of the disaster is hard to comprehend until you traverse the state’s vastness and witness the many miles of destruction in smaller communities without the resources to recover like Houston had. Vidor, Texas, a community within the Golden Triangle, lies 22 miles from Port Arthur as a part of the Beaumont-Port Arthur Metropolitan Statistical Area but is demographically and historically starkly different. There, evidence of the fierce winds and high floodwaters manifested as a skeletal community where many homes sat abandoned with broken slats, glass-less windows and shingles missing from their roofs.
Sandbags behind one property served as a somber reminder of how homeowners tried to stop the rising tide. Several collarless cats ambling along the road implied how many failed. A concrete staircase stands in what used to be someone’s lawn, leading nowhere.
The ADNA page reported that only 24 percent of Port Arthur residents had flood insurance when the hurricane hit. This was a problem found throughout Texas. However, in Vidor, the Leblanc family was one of the fortunate ones: They had insurance, allowing them to afford to rebuild (in contrast, folks in Port Arthur celebrated Thanksgiving in hotels. Melo Washington was still living in her garage. “I decided I would just live here because this is where I was raised,“ she said of the gutted home surrounding her.) In Vidor, the LeBlanc home is also stripped down to plywood, but they have the resources to rebuild.
“Mom’s room just smelled horrible as soon as it started,” Travis Leblanc said, describing how the toilets backed up during the flood. Travis, one of Tanya and Craig Leblanc’s three children, helped cleanup after the flood and even rescued a neighbor’s gun collection.
The family lost many personal items during the flood, but Tanya said the most valuable items they lost were family photos. However, she got the chance to capture a new memory when one of her daughters took advantage of the “pool”-like floodwaters and swam around in a poop-emoji float.
“She was having fun,” Leblanc laughed.
The family left once the water start seeping through the walls, spending three days at a friend’s boat shop and then going to a cabin by the lake called “Finn & Feather.”
Tanya said it took hours on the phone with FEMA before they were able to move to a hotel in Jasper, where they lived for over six weeks. When the family returned and started knocking out the weathered boards, they discovered heavy mold and termites. Now they’re in the process of revamping the entire home with new wiring, sheetrock, and other fixtures.
In the meantime, Craig and Tanya, along with their three children and eight pets — dogs Money, Buddy and Co; Tib the turtle; two fish; one cat; and one hamster named Fluffy — all live in an RV they call “Fifth Wheel.”
LeBlanc admits, “There’s not a lot of room.” But living there make the restoration process easier and gives them more time to do things like write prayers on the new beams, hoping to imbue the wood with a little bit of their faith.
“God’s in control” LeBlanc said.
In this way, Vidor represents the strength and resilience of Texans throughout the state. Of course, there are still remnants of the community’s ugly racial history of hosting the Klu Klux Klan and operating as a “sundown town.”
“Sundown towns,” prevalent in Northern and Southern communities at one point, prohibited African-Americans and/or other racial minorities from staying after dark, often with threats of violence. Vidor became notorious when the federal government attempted to integrate African-Americans families into the town’s housing units and the Klan marched in protest; months later, the families moved out.
Tanya says the city has moved on from its racist past since then.
“I haven’t seen anything like that here,” she said, although she was unnerved by an older man she saw with the letter K carved into his cheek.
A 2016 Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau put Vidor’s white population at 97 percent and its black population at 0.2 percent, suggesting that, although the city may have changed, African-Americans’ perception of it has not.
Response and Relief
Harvey was indiscriminate in its fury, wiping out affluent blocks in Houston, parts of rural enclaves like Vidor, and entire neighborhoods in Port Arthur, which was one of the most vulnerable communities. In contrast to Vidor, African-Americans are the largest ethnic group in Port Arthur, a town with the largest number of FEMA applications after the hurricane and a stubborn poverty rate before it.
Mayor Freeman described Port Arthur as “a blue island in a red state.” What the Texans shared in common: A hardy independence and determination to soldier on and tease the good out of the bad.
When Harvey hit, Freeman’s home wasn’t spared the damage. In the much-publicized video he streamed on Facebook Live, the mayor told viewers, “Harvey wasn’t playing” as he waded in water waist-deep inside his home. Port Arthur was mostly submerged, like a modern Atlantis; even the evacuation shelter flooded.
Freeman said that faith got him through what he believed is a disaster brought, in part, by global warming.
“I’ve never been through a devastating hurricane like this,” he said. “I don’t have anything to pull from.”
Freeman lived on the second floor of his two-story house because the ground level sustained the most damage.
“It was cold; it was moldy and nasty. I haven’t gutted it out,” he admitted. “But I didn’t have any other place else to go, so I just slept in my kids’ bunkbed for about week.”
According to Freeman, rescue efforts weren’t easy either. “We lost city buses, we lost city dump trucks, we lost city fire trucks — everything in our fleet operation went down,” he said.
And as Tanya Leblanc will attest, even response in the aftermath has been fraught with difficulty.
“Another thing that’s been an obstacle has been working through FEMA application,” Freeman said. “People can put a period in the wrong place and can be disqualified with their application.”
Vidor and the whole of Port Arthur have a lot in common; they share the same unemployment rate (10.4 percent), a relatively similar median age and a large portion of owner-occupied homes (Port Arthur, 58.2 percent and Vidor, 68.9 percent).
They also experienced similar damage from Harvey. In addition to the car and roof losses, the Austin Disaster Relief Network reported that 2,200 homes now require spray to remove mold, and over 1,100 need to be “mucked out.” Volunteers from all over the country are helping people rehabilitate their homes.
“This house is the worst of the four we’ve done today, and the worst I’ve seen overall,” said Operation Blessing volunteer Nikol Madrid, who has been involved in the gutting of 26 homes. She was speaking of an elderly woman’s home that the volunteers were just starting to empty of the woman’s worldly and now flood-damaged possessions, including water-logged books, cowboy hats, and even an old Christmas tree. “The mold was up to the ceiling,” said Madrid.
At the height of the storm, one-third of Houston was underwater, and people in Port Arthur were traversing roadways on boats. As of October 1, the Texas Medical Association put the hurricane-related death toll at 92.
The severity of the storm and the totality of the destruction have led many to wonder: Why did Harvey happen?
Scientists quoted in a September article on Weather.com said it’s too early tell. Both senior Weather.com meteorologist Jonathan Erdman and Columbia University Professor Dr. Suzana Camargo said that “attribution studies” examining the rate of greenhouse gas emissions in relation to the timing of the storm will yield some evidence, yet they hesitated to make a definite statement.
Instead, they both agreed that Harvey was a calamitous event, exacerbated by rising sea levels and resulting in an inordinate amount of rainfall.
In an article he wrote for The Guardian, climate scientist Dr. Michael E. Mann argued that climate change undeniably worsened Harvey’s impact, citing the warmer climate, higher sea temperatures and weak “prevailing winds” that failed to carry Harvey away from the coast and over the sea.
BJ Baptiste of Drummond agreed. “Global warming is real,” he declared, sitting in a town contributing its fair share of the pollution.
Baptiste, a Beaumont native, moved to Port Arthur when he got a job teaching science. The Ohio State and Dallas Cowboys fan built a home with his wife three houses down from the corner of Austin and Drummond in 1972.
They’ve sold the home to their daughter since then, yet as Baptiste raked leaves and small bits of debris from the driveway, he vividly recalled watching Storm Claudette from his window in 1979 as it dumped 16 inches of rain on the area.
Then he compared that experienced to what happened when Harvey came: They got five feet of flooding.
“We never would have had 50 inches of rain in 4-5 days,” he said. “Some people refuse to recognize it, [but] global warming has a lot to do with what’s happening here because there’s more energy in the atmosphere with all the CO2 and emissions — the energy is all piling up.”
Taking a break, Baptiste crossed his arms over the rake and shook his head. “Right now, we’re beginning to see it, like with Harvey. The [future] consequences are gonna be much worse,” he warned.
The Refinery Town
A drive southeast from Drummond towards Sabine Lake leads, once again, to the refinery town, set against rows of lights that glitter like man-made stars.
A few lonesome light posts outfitted with multiple security cameras stage the road across the street. It doesn’t take long for a security guard to question what people are doing there.
“Everybody catch cancer around here,” said Jerrell Bercier, the nephew of 81-year-old Port Arthur resident Opal Bercier.
His emphatic statement emerged more and more like a reality as statistics confirmed a history of respiratory illness and cancer.
The figures on Port Arthur’s health disparities read as a heavy price for oil production and consumption. According to an Environmental Integrity Project Report of August 2017:
- The cancer mortality rate for African Americans in Jefferson County, including Port Arthur, is 40 percent higher than Texas’ overall cancer mortality rate.
- According to both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Institutes of Health, African-American children die from asthma three times more frequently than their white counterparts; the rate for all children is double the national average
- The EPA’s Risk Screening Environmental Indicators Model (RSEI), which evaluates health risks, scored Valero and Total at over 60 times the national median score.
- The American Lung Association gives the local county a grade of F for air quality.
Even during the daytime, the air sometimes shimmered like a mirage, and an invisible substance caused eyes to sting and throats to tickle. Then, Hurricane Harvey hit.
Harvey’s aftermath was clearly visible in Port Arthur: siding, sinks, counters, furniture and random household items were piled alongside the road and in front of homes. The local school district has lost children as some left, never to return, in part because some landlords aren’t bothering to rebuild apartments.
In combination, flood devastation and refinery pollution slammed Port Arthur with a one-two punch — many residents found themselves vulnerable to airborne threats inside and outside their homes.
John Bonner refused to even step outside. “I have to stay by my breathing machine,” he said, explaining that the COPD he has had since he was born requires him to remain indoors.
When the floods from Hurricane Harvey rose, he and his wife found themselves in a home with three feet of water in easy view of the refineries. Bonner said that they’re luckier than most, despite having lost cabinets, a stove, a washer and dryer, and a CPAP machine.
Of course, the losses are relative; several of his neighbors are living in motels and hotels because their homes cannot be repaired.
Bonner is originally from Houston. “I wanted a change of scenery,” he said, explaining why he moved to Port Arthur. Seeing a boat floating in his backyard wasn’t quite what he had in mind. But it rescued him and his wife and took them to his sister-in-law’s house, where they stayed for three months until the waters receded. They’ve been eating food from a microwave ever since they returned home.
And as for the scenery? Port Arthur can be breathtaking at night, but it comes at a price.
Through his screen door, Bonner admitted, “Sometimes they’ll let out something not fit for human consumption.”
A wooden white cross adorned the rear of Bonner’s property with a fuel storage tank in the background. The cross represented a symbol of faith yet it also acted as a literal stake in the ground – a declaration of ownership. It’s a wonder that as sick as he is, he chooses to remain in Port Arthur; why does he stay?
Tamika Reed posed a different question: why should we leave?
Reed, a resident who lives in the same neighborhood as Bonner, with the refineries looming in their backyard, suffers from asthma and bronchitis. Living next door to the plants hasn’t been good for her health; Reed has been hospitalized multiple times for respiratory related flare-ups.
“These refineries, and these other places like that of that nature, they messed us up,” said Reed, her inhaler in her hand.
Port Arthur was originally settled in 1895 by New Yorker Arthur Stilwell. Following World War II, African Americans began heavily populating the area. Segregation pushed them downwind towards West Port Arthur and closer to the refineries.
“[Port Arthur] wasn’t good before the hurricane, it wasn’t good during the hurricane, and it isn’t good after the hurricane,” said Reed.
Cheap properties along the road across from the refineries were marketed to poor, mostly African-American populations looking to move, such as the Carver Terrace housing projects, which Ted Genoways wrote a startling article about in 2013.
The South Texas chapter of AT&T’s Pioneer volunteer program have recognized a general decline of financial and resource support from outside agencies. The Pioneer program’s vice president, Graylynn Viltz, coordinated a Mount Sinai garage sale, where volunteers from the church helped organize and distribute supplies.
“Port Arthur needs the most help because they have the least resources,” said Viltz, a Port Arthur resident whose sister and mother both sustained damage to their vehicles and home.
The Pioneers have been active in areas all across Texas since Harvey, helping Meals on Wheels feed the elderly and contributing to a toy drive for children anticipating the upcoming Christmas season. As a result, they spend more time in the community than most.
In Port Arthur particularly, many volunteers are residents like Viltz who enjoy cultivating community spirit. Those who can’t afford to move simply make the best of life, regardless of where they are. Port Arthur residents haven’t given up living. This is why forcing residents to uproot themselves is unrealistic, Viltz explained.
“People don’t move because real estate is more expensive,” Viltz said. “The population is mostly elderly.”
He estimated that most Port Arthur neighborhoods are full of homesteads.
One such homesteader was 69-year-old Glenn Martin, who has lived in his home on 912 Foley Avenue for over 20 years. The Navy veteran wouldn’t even leave during the flood when rescuers came out on a boat.
“I saw snakes out there,” he said, shaking his head. “I didn’t want to come out.”
“Rain, rain, rain – it was over my truck tires,” he said, pointing to the water line on his Black Chevy S10. Martin’s home flooded as well, and FEMA qualified him for assistance on rebuilding.
As Martin’s gold cross gleamed in the sunlight, he squinted and remarked, “I don’t depend on FEMA or nobody. You’ve got to look out for yourself in this life. I’ve got Jesus,” he concluded.
Martin is still waiting for FEMA to return and help him repair his home. At the moment, he lives in a house likely filled with mold. Some of his neighbors said they’d scrubbed their homes with bleach, oblivious to the fact that’s unlikely to be a cure.
The West Side Blue Store, a neighborhood staple which has stood even longer than Martin’s home, fared better than Martin’s home; the store was flooded in inches and not feet.
No one seemed very certain about the origins of the store.
Felicia Stevenson said the store was called “Chester Allen” before she was born.
A man named Charlie owned the store in 1973, fellow local Daniel Singleton interjected.
Stevenson waved him off good-naturedly.
Even the clerk who gave the name “Rockstar Kishore,” and said that his boss “Mohammed” has been the owner for the last 20 years couldn’t say how old the store is. However, inside, the damage is so minimal, it’s hard to tell a flood ever occurred here.
Outside, Stevenson stood outside the door carrying a notebook full of names – donors who have given her money so she could buy flowers for her granddaughter’s funeral in Louisiana, she said.
A lifetime Port Arthur resident, she said that FEMA was two months late in arriving to help and that they denied her application for assistance. She didn’t know why, and she didn’t try to appeal.
Her hair was in a tight silver braid and lines of weariness etched her face. Immediately, she backed away after contemplating the idea of being photographed.
But she didn’t leave, still taking collections from whomever offered.
Where Does the Money Go?
According to the Environmental Integrity Project Report, “While output and corresponding profits have increased, manufacturing jobs within the fossil fuel industry have steadily declined – by nearly 30 percent – since 1990 . . . As a so-called ‘fence line’ community, [Port Arthur is] plagued by soaring unemployment and poverty rates.”
The U.S. Census Bureau found that nearly a quarter of Port Arthur’s familial households earned an income below the poverty line in the past 12 months in 2016, and the median annual earnings for workers was only $25,000 (compared to $47,000 in Houston City, Texas).
Chevron, only one of several industrial giants in the area, quadrupled its profits from the first nine months of 2016, earning $5.65 billion in profits in 2017, according to the Chevron Corp’s Quarterly Report. How could such a wealthy conglomerate of companies fail to introduce wealth into the community directly behind it?
“Port Arthur is not a poor town; it’s modest,” Viltz explained at the donation drive. “Unfortunately, the money doesn’t get tunneled through the city like it should.”
“Deer Park is a refinery in Houston, and they have everything,” he remarked. “Houston has more resources. They have a lot of professional teams, a lot of wealthier people. They’re getting the benefit out of the refineries, and Port Arthur is not.”
Jerell Bercier said the refineries used to pay homeowners, yet changed tactics 11 years ago and stopped paying. Now, he said they’ve been trying to buy out homeowners to expand.
“That’s why they don’t pay nobody no more,” he said. “Everything about money.”
He said the companies hire when they have “shutdowns,” or temporary boosts of mass demand that require mass production. But the majority of plants, he believes, hire out-of-town workers to make themselves eligible for – Jerrell struggled to recall the word, snapping his fingers several times until it came to him – tax write-offs.
When the price goes up, he explained, the company profits.
The famous Spindletop oil field of Beaumont in 1901 was a boon for crude oil. J.M. Guffey and John Galey were the first to finance a successful drill at the site. Guffey eventually bought out his partners in 1901, forming the J. M. Guffey Petroleum Co. and purchasing nearly 400 acres of Port Arthur to store iron tanks and “wharf facilities” (harbors for docking or unloading cargo).
The Gulf Refining Company of Texas, which refined the oil from Guffey’s company, built a refinery in Port Arthur. In 1907, the Gulf Oil Corporation bought out Guffey’s shares and built the 400-mile Explorer pipeline from Port Arthur to Oklahoma. They used $90 million to expand in the years before and during the Great Depression; for example, they bought a Barco Oil Concession (government-company contract) in Columbia and later sold it to the Texas Corporation (currently known as Texaco) in 1936.
By 1951, the Gulf Oil Corporation had expanded into the petrochemical market, adding ethylene and isooctyl alcohol to its production plants. At the same time, they finished constructing one of the world’s largest catalytic cracking units in Port Arthur, Texas at the time.
Competition and trouble with the country of Kuwait, which had become one of their main oil sources, led the company to sell in 1984. Chevron bought it for $13.2 billion and in 2000, merged with Texaco in a deal worth billions.
Phase 3 of the Keystone Pipeline, a Gulf Coast extension which treks through Port Arthur’s refineries, was completed in January of 2014.
There are currently 12 industrial sites in Port Arthur, including Chevron, Valero, Motiva Enterprises and Total Petrochemicals USA.
Of course, in Port Arthur, there are also homeowners, veterans and children.
Homeowners, Veterans, and Children
As Jerrell Bercier sat on his aunt Opal’s porch, he snorted at the mention of refineries.
The plants burn substances they’re not supposed to during the wee hours of morning, he alleged, causing the sky to turn orange and pink as it coats people’s cars with pink ash.
The “isooctyl” product which the Gulf Oil company – now Chevron – started producing in 1951 is obtained from a reaction combining carbon monoxide and hydrogen among other chemicals. For most laypeople, it’s unclear where those chemicals go during and after the production/refining process.
According to the Tox Town page from the National Institutes of Health, “When crude oil is burned, either accidentally or as a spill control measure, it emits chemicals that affect human health. These chemicals include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, sulfur dioxide, and volatile organic compounds . . .”
“Exposure to burning crude oil may harm the passages of the nose, airways, and lungs. It may cause shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, coughing, itching, red or watery eyes, and black mucous.”
“They’ve been killing people for a long time,” maintained Rufus Landry.
Landry is a 65-year-old, lifetime Port Arthur resident who spent two years in the Air Force in 1970.
After the floods, he had an even more pressing problem: he lost his apartment in the hurricane and became homeless.
In search of help, Landry ambled to the donation drive being held at Mount Sinai.
“I don’t need no clothes; I need a place to stay,” he said, peering over at the donations. “You got a place for me?” he asked half-jokingly.
But the joke is without mirth because there really isn’t a place for anyone in Port Arthur; even hotels were not impervious to the deluge of water.
At the Three Rivers Inn & Suites, the entire first floor remains deserted due to mold damage. A murky water line is still visible against the wooden backboards, and the former rooms are now completely empty.
But, in a way, the hotel still represents a haven for many.
Marsha Bias has been living in the hotel with her husband, daughter and granddaughter since Hurricane Harvey first ripped through Texas. Although they are from Beaumont, Port Arthur was the nearest city with a hotel inhabitable enough to host guests.
“As far as FEMA goes, they haven’t done anything. So basically, you lose everything and they give $1,300. That’s not going to do nothing,” she said. (FEMA, with its many fact sheets, would beg to differ.)
Three Rivers Inn employee Chandler Matthews watched as Harvey flooded the first-floor rooms by evening. A college student at Lamar University, he had worked at the hotel for nearly a year.
“We ate out of the vending machines for two days,” Matthews said. “We ate ’til everything was gone.”
Since then, the vending machines have been refilled, and the hotel’s guests live a somewhat normal life. There are very little options for those who couldn’t make it to the hotel.
Outside, a smog-like haze clearly visible during nighttime descends upon the neighborhood while inside, black mold creeps up the sheetrock and into foundations, releasing toxic spores.
The town’s residents are trapped.
Trapped: Inside and Out
The CDC advises victims of flood damage to discard any items touched with flood water 48 hours after they’ve been contaminated, use protective measures (goggles, gloves, boots, etc.) while cleaning, and clean surfaces with water and detergent.
Warren Hall is an Army veteran who has lived in Port Arthur for the last seven years. His grandchildren played on the lawn as he cleaned a pair of black and red Lugz with white shoelaces.
He was at a shelter during the flood, he said, and returned to a moldy house. Then the government came.
“They cut the mold out,” he said.
The house reeked of a dour odor, and the walls indicated otherwise. Nonetheless, Hall said that he had to prepare the children for their mother’s birthday party.
Somehow, the thought of a birthday – or any kind of celebration – just didn’t fit the scene: Debris piles from the hurricane still dotted the landscape some three months after the hurricane’s landing, and the community’s losses appeared even grimmer against the sober backdrop of concrete and steel.
Yet, as Edna Haley put it, life must go on.
“We still get up and go to work, the kids, they go to school,” said the 27-year member of New St. John Baptist Church. “[Then we] come home,” she started before pausing to clarify. “Well, we say home.”
That’s because the church is home for Haley and 10 other families who had nowhere to stay after the flood damaged their properties. Haley, who’s been living in the church since Aug. 29, credited Reverend Clark Comeaux for gathering his congregates from the community and inviting them to stay in the church while contractors work on their homes.
Although Haley acknowledged that their new normal isn’t exactly comfortable, she said she’s hoping they’ll be able to move back into their homes by Christmas.
Haley’s quiet dignity is further proof that the people of Port Arthur are not easily fazed, not even when faced with sicknesses from within and without.
One Port Arthur resident, Jerrell’s uncle Bayo Joseph Bercier, embodied the condition of Port Arthur’s citizens.
Inside, cancer waged a war on his cells. Outside, the air around him was flush with chemicals.
Bayo Bercier has lived in Port Arthur since 1969.
His house on the corner of 9th and Roosevelt, is home to a cat named Jumper and an apparent love of Bud Light; silver and electric blue beer cans were piled up high in a bucket by his doorstep.
Bayo Bercier moved to Port Arthur because of the jobs. “That’s why everybody move here,” he said.
He worked as a contractor for the plants and also worked at the US Marine shipyard pulling concrete, where he noted how different safety standards were seen in his day.
“Back then,” Bayo said, “it was the job.”
That’s when he explained that he developed cancer of the lymph nodes, pointing to his neck and trying to remember the word “lymphoma.”
The cancer could be from cigarettes, his factory work in the army, the poor air quality or a combination of all three. Bercier lives in a neighborhood that flooded.
In 1991, the EPA deemed the Beaumont/Port Arthur (BPA) area as a serious ozone nonattainment area. Was Harvey a climate change disaster? Will the refineries’ existence mean there will be more to come?
During Harvey and its aftermath, the Arkema Chemical Plant explosion occurred about 75 miles west of Port Arthur. Closer by, two superfund toxic waste sites were either damaged or flooded. Numerous other chemical and oil plants in Port Arthur experienced emissions as a result of Harvey’s damage.
In many ways, not much about the EPA’s 1991 declaration seems to have changed.
“At night,” Bercier admitted, “you don’t know what you be smellin’. [But] I guess I’m used to it.”
Guys who retire and move end up dying, he said. Besides, there’s little that can be done to change the past or keep the flames streaming out the refinery’s fire stacks from burning into the future.
He looked out at the stop sign on the corner sideways. “How you gonna fight with a big ole business like that?”
This story was written by Talis Shelbourne with reporting by Talis Shelbourne and contributions by other members of the Media Milwaukee Hurricane Harvey reporting team.