Port Arthur, an oil town on the Gulf Coast of Texas, has seen its share of big storms.
Hurricane Harvey was different.
As Keren Arledge, the executive administrative assistant at the Gulf Coast Health Center and a Port Arthur native put it on a recent January afternoon, “this storm did something I’d never seen a storm do before.”
Rather than maintain course after making landfall and dissipating across the state’s interior expanse, as hurricanes had before, Harvey circled back and held in place for nearly four days, dropping an unprecedented amount of rain in the Houston area — so much rain, in fact, that the flood area itself began to act like an inland sea, feeding moisture back into the storm to be dropped as yet more rain.
No one in Port Arthur was prepared for what Harvey unleashed. “We have levees here to protect us and Harvey wasn’t supposed to have a huge storm surge, so we felt pretty safe, but the water just kept rising and rising,” Arledge recalled. “By the time the weather got bad here, Houston was already flooded, so there was nowhere to go.”
While Houston and other cities suffered serious impacts from the flooding, smaller communities like Port Arthur were also devastated. “Just about everyone here — even our employees — was affected,” said Dr. Marsha Thigpen, the executive director of the Gulf Coast Health Center, a Direct Relief partner since 2009. “Probably 60 or 70 percent of people didn’t have flood insurance.”
Dr. Thigpen was among those whose home was destroyed in the storm. When Harvey hit, Dr. Thigpen was at a conference out of town. On Wednesday, a day after the rain hit, she flew to San Antonio and had to reach Houston by road. “To see the damage the next day… It was just shocking,” she said. “My family didn’t have flood insurance and up until yesterday”— January 18 —“we’d been living in a hotel.”
Despite the damage to her own home, Dr. Thigpen and her staff have been working tirelessly since the storm hit to continue providing services to the 20,000 unique patients they see annually. Though the Gulf Coast Health Center has been around for nearly three decades and its services have become increasingly urgent. Several years ago, the city’s 300-bed safety-net hospital closed down, Dr. Thigpen said. That left only private medical centers in town. Citizens without insurance can seek medical attention at hospitals in Galveston, two hours away without traffic, at one of the center’s five sites, or through the clinic’s mobile unit.
Because the center’s buildings are modular, they were, for the most part, relatively unaffected by the storm. But a significant number of the clinic’s patients were stranded in their homes or at shelters. Staff members from the clinic, who speak Spanish, Vietnamese and sign language, took a mobile medical unit into the community. “We were going to them so they could get the medication they needed,” said Dr. Thigpen. In those same days, Arledge said, “citizens were going out in their boats to help, some of them for two or three days straight.”
In Port Arthur, as in other areas affected by flooding, the most urgent need, after rescue efforts wound down, was for the flu and tetanus shots provided by Direct Relief. “We had people who had to wade through water and got infections, others who had to stay in mold-infested houses,” Dr. Thigpen said.
Sonia Goudeaux, the interim director of operations and an 18-year employee of the clinic, was at the same conference as Dr. Thigpen when Harvey hit. “For me, the worst part was after the storm when people started to tear things out of their homes,” she said. “You’d drive up the street and see… It was just every home.” The city lost its trash trucks in the floods, so the debris sat for days at a time, a grave reminder of the city’s loss.
Since the storm, Gulf Coast Health has manned flu shot drives at local volleyball and football games. They recognize that, in all the turmoil, such precautions are rarely a top priority for most people. They’ve also distributed basic items from Direct Relief, including bug spray to combat the mosquitos drawn by stagnant water. The $25,000 grant donated by Direct Relief will go toward replacing the four vehicles the clinic lost to the floods, Dr. Thigpen said.
Port Arthur’s recovery will be long, and in all likelihood, incomplete. Despite its extent, the damage in Port Arthur has been largely overshadowed by the devastation in Houston. “The same thing happened with Rita because it came right after Katrina,” Arledge said.
Dr. Thigpen estimated that it will take at least five years for the city to recover. In the meantime, the center is returning to normal, continuing to offer services to a community in need, even if no one else is paying attention.
– Michael Snyder is a journalist based in Mexico City.
To date, Direct Relief has supported more than 52 health centers and free clinics in communities impacted by Hurricane Harvey. Nearly $14 million worth of specifically requested medical aid has been shipped to these clinics in the months since the storm made landfall, and Direct Relief will continue to support these communities in their recovery.