PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

September 13, 2013

5 years after Ike slammed coast, rebuilding of lives, communities continue

Sherry Koonce
The Port Arthur News

— Watching people take their daily exercise along the seawall while vessels from far-flung places pass through Port Arthur ‘s ship channel is something Deloris “Bobbie” Prince has done much of her life.

Yet, five years ago when Port Arthur’s mayor drove down Lakeshore Drive and saw people gathered on the seawall, she was alarmed — enough so to get out of her car and plead with those who had come to get a first glimpse of Hurricane to leave, to evacuate and get out of harm’s way.

Tides were rising, and winds howling, signaling Ike and its great tidal surge was on its way with Port Arthur dead in its sight.

“We had to get people out or they would be stuck here in Port Arthur,” Prince said.

She was right. Hurricane Ike made landfall in the early morning hours of Sept. 13, 2008, with torrential rains and a tidal surge as high as 12 feet in some parts of Southeast Texas.

Prince remembers the storm rolling in that night, where she was bunkered down at a Lumberton school with other officials from the area.

“All night long you could hear the double door clanging,” she said. “The wind was so strong it had broken the chain. Up above us you could hear, like a train, it was a most disturbing feeling. It was terrible.”

As frightening as the storm’s passing was, it did not make her feel as bad as when she returned to Port Arthur and witnessed the storm’s devastation.

Though the city sustained millions of dollars in damages, the levee had held, and the storm surge did not get as high as feared in Port Arthur.

Other areas were much harder hit.

The coastal community Sabine Pass was nearly destroyed as was Pleasure Island, Bridge City, parts of Orange, Hamshire-Fannett and nearby Bolivar Peninsula.

Ike, while it devastated much of the region, spared Nederland, Port Neches and Groves, all of which saw minimal damage compared to other areas.

Five years later, the recovery effort is still ongoing. Though much has been accomplished, there is still much to do.

“I’ve seen a lot of improvements since Hurricane Ike, but when an area suffers destruction at that magnitude, it takes years to recover,” Prince said.



Homes ruined

Because the area was inundated with storm waters, housing stock was destroyed in those areas hardest hit.

Shaun Davis, executive director with the Southeast Texas Regional Planning Commission, leads the agency in charge of administrating federal housing recovery money to the three-county area in its jurisdiction: Jefferson, Orange and Hardin counties.

SETRPC has already distributed Round I recovery funds, and is now disbursing Round II. Both rounds are for damage sustained in Hurricanes Ike and Dolly, a less severe storm that struck the southern-most Texas coast in 2008.

In total, $328 million in Round II funding, was allocated. Fifty-five percent of the Round II dollars are designated for housing, and 45 percent is for non-housing activities such as roads, bridges, public facilities, etc.

Round II has about $190 million designated to repair or rebuild housing damaged by the storm. Of that, the bulk, about $125 million is earmarked for single family housing throughout the region.

The remainder goes toward multi-family and single-family rentals, Davis said.

Since Ike struck, about 750 new homes have been constructed in the three-county area from Round I money during a period of  15 months.

During the five years, SETRPC has had 4,000 applications processed.

Though the process has been slow, and often arduous, much has been accomplished in the five years, Davis said.

“I am optimistic about where we are. We’ve got about 200 folks in the pipeline eligible who will shortly be moving into the construction phase, which we hope to start by the first of the year,” Davis said.



Bridge City

Perhaps no other place was harder hit than Bridge City, where the “little city under the bridge,” was swamped with storm waters.

The well publicized photo of the flooded Pizza Hut on Texas Avenue sums up the devastation suffered in Bridge City, where only 16 homes out of 3,800 were left livable.

Early on, the townspeople, assisted by hundreds of volunteers, rolled up their sleeves and began the business of recovery.

“They’ve all came back plus some,” Bridge City Manager Jerry Jones said.

Thousands of homes were gutted, remodeled and updated, 69 new homes were built and the city’s population has increased. Some of the older folks who didn’t want to go through the rebuilding process and live with the danger of future hurricanes moved out, he said, while an influx of people from the Mid-County area in neighboring Jefferson County came in, bought the homes and repaired them.

Businesses came back and new businesses came to town as well and streets and sewer and other infrastructure were repaired and updated.

“It was a struggle, I won’t say it wasn’t,” he said of the near 24-hour work days after the storm. “But it’s what we had to do to bring the people back in. The mayor made the call early to allow people back in order to get their homes repaired. Allowed trailers in here and let citizens put them in driveways in order to work on their homes. Those are the two big things that helped.”

It wasn’t just the citizens of Bridge City that made recovery possible — they had a hand from Mid-County residents who held work days in the city, businesses who opened their doors and cooked for others.



Pleasure Island

Nearly five years and close to a million dollars later, Port Arthur’s Pleasure Island is getting back to its pre-storm condition.

After Ike washed ashore, sailboats littering the island were a testament to the devastation caused by Ike.

Pleasure Island Director Jimmy Dike said so far repairs made to the Island have cost about $900,000. FEMA paid the bulk of the expenditure, and the city agreed to pay the balance as long as the projects are related to public amenities.

Completed projects include the boardwalk which ties the RV park into the marina; an irrigation system at the golf course; a large fishing pier with covered pavilion, a fuel dock for boats; and debris removal. The Army Corps of Engineers funded project to resurface the north and south levee roads has also been completed.

Marina repairs, expected to reach about $8.9 million, will be jointly paid by FEMA and the island. FEMA will pay roughly 75 percent, and the Island the rest, Dike said.

The city of Port Arthur agreed to loan the Island Commission money for its part, to be reimbursed with proceeds from the marina, and other revenue-producing leases.

Pleasure’s Island’s marina is nearly completed and expected to be up and running soon, Dike said.



Sabine Pass

In Sabine Pass the city’s infrastructure has to be upgraded to keep up with the community’s changed skyline.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency required to homes be elevated in the area, necessitating expanded water lines.

“Because the buildings were mandated to be elevated, the water pressure was not up to par,” Ross Blackketter,  Port Arthur director of public works, said.

Those infrastructure upgrades, funded from Round II Hurricane Recovery money, includes expansion of a pump station,  a ground storage tank, and new water lines.

Anyone traveling to Sabine Pass will notice a more beach-like atmosphere from the now elevated homes.

Also elevated is the city’s fire station which was totally rebuilt from the ground up. The new station was feted with an open house in August.

Ironically, the new building replaced one that had been rebuilt by the volunteers and crews from the television show “Extreme Makeover” after Hurricane Rita destroyed it in 2005.



Lessons learned

Prince said there are still reminders of Ike — even a few remaining blue tarps placed on Ike-damaged rooftops in the storm’s immediate aftermath.

“We still have individuals working with insurance companies. Some did not have insurance, and we had homes abandoned so the city had to take them over.

Citizens are still applying for housing through the SETRPC, and the city of Port Arthur has a lot of demolition, infrastructure repairs and roads to resurface, all damaged from Ike, and to be funded with Round II dollars.

Still, Prince said she is glad to see all that has been accomplished, but hopes Ike taught a lesson.

“I am hoping we have learned if there is a hurricane out there, and an evacuation is called, I am praying that people now understand the need to leave the city,” Prince said.

E-mail: skoonce@panews.com

Twitter: skooncePANews

Mary Meaux contributed to this story.