Stepping up to help others in storm's wake

Members of the 433rd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron work through the night.

While many have a difficult time remembering individual storms that have affected Southeast Texas over the years, others have them seared into their memories forever. Living through any hurricane is a life-changing experience, but when you are given the responsibility of doing everything in your power to keep safe the people you are elected to serve, any natural disaster is a huge event and one that usually produces unsung heroes and heroic acts that are the stuff of movies and, perhaps, legends.

Hurricane Rita in 2005 was such a storm, and former Jefferson County Judge Carl Griffith was at the helm in Southeast Texas on Monday, Sept. 19, when the tropical depression became the fourth most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded and the most intense tropical cyclone ever observed in the Gulf of Mexico. The record-breaking 2005 Atlantic hurricane season included three of the most intense Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded, including Wilma and Katrina. As Rita launched her damaging invasion on Beaumont, Jefferson County, and surrounding areas, many area residents sprang into action and began what would become stress-filled days, longer nights, weeks of recovery, and a huge rebuilding effort that would take years, thousands of people and millions of dollars.

To fully comprehend Rita’s onslaught, one must go backward to Monday, Aug. 29, when Katrina made landfall near New Orleans. Katrina blanketed all media, took almost all airspace, brought in dignitaries, and raised awareness as the horrible scene played out in living color. No doubt, Katrina was intense and left behind an awful ordeal of destruction, death and bad decisions as the world watched in awe. Texas did what it always does — her people jumped in to help their neighbors. Literally thousands of evacuees streamed into Beaumont’s Ford Park and other receiving stations where they were given food, clothing, medical care and transportation. Immediate housing was arranged by local officials, faith based groups, and business and industry leaders. Utility companies sent men, materials and invested money to help those less fortunate at the time. 

Area pharmacies and doctors met the medical needs of the thousands pouring into Texas from neighboring Louisiana, and individuals whose hearts were touched gave of their personal resources. No Texan could have known that some three weeks later, every single resource available would be needed for our own people. Our coffers were low because food, water, cots, blankets, medicine and other emergency supplies had been sent to help our neighbors.

Our elected officials, first responders, law enforcement, the medical community, food providers, and individuals rose to their highest level of human decency and helped to prevent many of the tragedies that unfolded on national news in New Orleans. Emergency Operations Centers were established and the community jumped into action to provide what was most needed, including computers, cots and food. Rita could have done more damage had Judge Griffith and others not been ready and willing to step up and see that Southeast Texans had a fighting chance against this terrible onslaught. As it was, lives were damaged and some taken during the evacuation, poisoning from carbon monoxide, and a tragic bus wreck while fleeing from the coming storm.

Guy Goodson had been mayor of Beaumont for only four months when he faced this monumental challenge. “My main job was to manage resources, but Judge Griffith had a much larger mission. He had the entire county to deal with. He had to coordinate with mayors and chief executive officers. Carl gave a herculean effort working with Kay Bailey Hutchison and the feds to get those medical evacuation planes out before the hurricane,” Goodson said. “That was an outstanding effort. I do not know how he wasn’t just physically and mentally exhausted before the storm ever made landfall.” 

Goodson went on to say that Griffith had a major role coordinating between state, federal and local assets. “He was down there every day making sure the resources would continue to come in and out while we took care of specific problems,” he said.

Griffith himself is somewhat shy about discussing his role in the Hurricane Rita efforts, but while making decisions and arrangements for the 252,000 people in his county, he was also helping and advising judges and other officials in smaller counties. Griffith realized that a huge problem was going to be the evacuation of people with medical needs. After determining that ambulances were not going to be available from the Department of Public Safety Texas Division of Emergency Management, Griffith gambled on a long shot and decided to try for a military airlift. Banking on his then 18 years in public service, Griffith, a Democrat, called on Hutchison, a Republican, to help him save the lives of many in his county. Others had been calling the White House Situation Room, telling folks there that people were going to die unless they got some help. “Hutchison came through for us,” said Griffith. “She broke the log jam, and I could breathe a little easier.”

There are several humorous stories surrounding the great need for a group of generators stored in a locked lot. One version this reporter heard was that Griffith felt he had waited too long for those generators and that he took wire cutters, opened the lock, and helped to roll the equipment out to provide power for the most needy.

Wind was the biggest culprit in Jefferson and Orange counties. Huge old trees were toppled like matchsticks. According to an Oct. 25, 2005, Disaster Center report, 4,526 single-family dwellings were destroyed in the two counties and major damage was sustained by an additional 14,256 homes. Another 26,211 homes sustained some damage, and blue plastic tarp roofs became the norm. The big trees crashed into homes and businesses, causing millions in damage and in some cases, cutting the structures into two halves. Before the damage reports were all in, nine counties in the state were declared disaster areas. Texas reported 113 deaths from the hurricane, but in addition to the dead, many were injured and depressed in the aftermath. Combined damage from Rita totaled over $12 billion. Griffith oversaw the recovery effort and welcomed residents back home to Southeast Texas as soon as it was safe and feasible.

Many say the damage and death toll would be much higher without the quick thinking, hard work, networking, and plain common sense approach of the elected officials and leaders of our area.

 

Brenda Cannon Henley can be reached at (409) 781-8788 or at brendacannonhenley [at] yahoo [dot] com.

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