Port Arthur officials find temporary housing

Port Arthur officials find temporary housing

The City of Port Arthur has begun the process of bringing home Port Arthur residents who were evacuated to other regions in Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the city announced Sept. 18, with residents arriving at the Bob Bowers Civic Center shelter location.

But it seems that wasn’t always the plan.

Officials considered using accommodation barges, which were also used on the East Coast after Hurricane Sandy, according to County Judge Jeff Branick. Port Arthur Mayor Derrick Freeman posted on Facebook Sept. 13 that housing barges were being brought to the city to house displaced residents. These barges, however, did not pass a Port State Control examination where they were docked in Morgan City, Louisiana, according to the Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit in Port Arthur.

The Coast Guard performs vessel inspections, similar to Texas’ vehicle inspections, USCG Capt. Jacqueline Twomey explained.

“This storm displaced a lot of people [and] the local city and county officials and FEMA were very interested in finding a solution which would allow children to go back to school and not put an undue burden on people,” she said. “They wanted them to be near where they had lived and worked and attended school.”

Housing displaced residents on the Sabine Neches Waterway, the third busiest in the nation by tonnage, could pose some risk, Twomey said, and “local officials and FEMA were always looking at other options.”

The barges, JMC 24 and JMC 44, have 588 beds and are owned by Cashman Equipment, according to the company’s website. They were built in 1945 and are foreign flagged, according to the latest information that the Coast Guard has.

Twomey explained that these barges are typically used for shipyard and oilfield workers and not usually meant to house families.

The barges did not meet the the international load line requirements for transit outside of 12 nautical miles when the Coast Guard in Morgan City visited the barges, according to Twomey.

“The Coast Guard engaged with vessel representatives, and they had some concerns” regarding fire safety, life saving and structural issues.

Twomey said, “It was a well-intentioned thought to provide a place for displaced families to live; however, the barges were not ready to accept those families for accommodation by the end of this week.”

Instead, the City of Port Arthur set up tent shelters at Central Mall and Bob Bowers Civic Center, Branick said. More plans are being made for additional shelters “if there are evictions from apartment complexes in Port Arthur because of mold remediation issues,” he added.

Mayor Freeman estimates that 80 to 85 percent of structures in Port Arthur were affected by the storm, he said in a press conference Sept. 21.

“The barges didn’t work out, so we had to do something quick for our emergent needs.”

The tent city’s sheltering capacity is 500 people right now and can be expanded if needed, according to City of Port Arthur spokesperson Louie Havens. The shelter is currently housing 300 to 330 displaced residents.

The mayor strongly encouraged anyone without a safe place to stay to call Port Arthur’s shelter options hotline at (409) 983-8705.

One of the Coast Guard’s biggest concerns is safety, Twomey explained, in addition to environmental protection and security.

The Coast Guard’s help in rescues during the flooding that Harvey caused was unusual, Ltn. Sarah Scheaffer explained.

“The Marine Safety Unit’s primary mission is not search and rescue and this response was urban search and rescue, which means it was land based,” Scheaffer said. “The Coast Guard typically does waterway search and rescue, so this was a big deal.”

“It’s not normally our jurisdiction, [but] the roads were a waterway all of a sudden, and we assisted with the response.”

During the hurricane, the Marine Safety unit in Port Arthur was involved in over 3,700 rescues and helped with 198 pets, including a monkey and 10 pigs, according to Twomey and Scheaffer. At one point, they assisted with herding cows by airboat.

The City of Port Arthur is also working to clear the debris in flooded neighborhoods, the mayor said in the Sept. 21 press briefing. Regular waste collection resumed Monday, Sept. 18 with debris contractors running 25 trucks simultaneously, he said.

Freeman estimates that as much as 57,000 cubic yards of debris were col- lected so far. He also told residents to separate appliances, electronics, con- struction and vegetation debris when possible.

The city currently has three debris management sites to sort waste before it goes to the landfill – one on Jade Avenue, another on 60th Street and a third on 19th Street with a fourth in progress on the southeast side of town.

These sites are carefully monitored by TCEQ and piles are watered down “constantly,” Freeman assured residents, and the city has no plans to burn debris at these sites.

U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson visited several housing developments in Port Arthur and the water treatment plant in downtown Beaumont on Sept. 22.

During his tour, Carson praised public-private partnerships and their use of disaster relief funds to rebuild after Hurricane Ike. 

“We want people to know that in Washington DC, we know that there are more places in Texas than Houston,” Carson told The Examiner in an exclusive interview. “We’re obviously very concerned about Houston, but we’re very concerned about all the other places.”

When asked about locals’ concerns that they would be forgotten, he said, “Not gonna happen.”