Less than a month ago, 40 families were closing a chapter in Port Arthur. Almost three years after hurricane Harvey damaged their homes and their belongings, masked volunteers in bright colored T-shirts brought new beds, chests and nightstands to their doorsteps.
“We still have pockets of homes in our communities that are struggling to get their lives whole,” said Janie Johnson, CEO of United Way of Mid and South Jefferson County, one of the organizations involved in the distribution effort. “This was the last step for their full recovery from Harvey.”
But now Port Arthur, which suffered severe flooding during Hurricane Harvey and is currently feeling the impact of COVID-19 on the local energy industry, has to prepare for the arrival of another monster hurricane.
Hurricane Laura continued to strengthen throughout the day Wednesday and became a Category 4 hurricane. By late Wednesday, its wind speeds intensified as the storm came close to becoming a Category 5 storm. At a noon press conference Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott said the Southeast Texas coast will start feeling the storm's winds at around 7 p.m. and that the eye of the hurricane will make landfall by 1 a.m. on Thursday.
“People in that area will be dealing with the ravages of the storm for about a few more hours, but we do anticipate the storm being out of Texas by tomorrow night,” Abbott said.
The report from the National Hurricane Center forecasts a storm surge of between 10 and 15 feet around the Jefferson County area.
Leaders of nonprofits and emergency organizations are having to quickly shift gears as Hurricane Laura approaches. Many workers and volunteers have evacuated. Food banks serving people unemployed due to COVID-19 have had to temporarily shut down. People like Vernon Pierce, who normally coordinates efforts like the furniture distribution for Harvey victims, have to start thinking about how to identify the immediate needs that this new hurricane will create.
Pierce is the executive director of Jefferson County Long Term Recovery. His office coordinates nonprofits like United Way, religious organizations and local governments to solve the ongoing problems of Hurricane Harvey’s victims in this county, where Port Arthur is located. They try to find grants and donations and match them with people in need. They distribute new furniture, fix floors that are still damaged and bring air conditioners to people who have endured three summers of Gulf Coast heat since Harvey hit.
Although he said that there are still “a couple of hundred cases” of people needing help, he is proud of the achievements. Only one family remains in a FEMA trailer in the county. But he still sees houses damaged and people struggling to recover. Since March, he's also seen COVID-19's impact on the county.
“I have a client with three young children, the wife has cancer and he has some ailments himself," Pierce said. "He lost his job, got it back and lost it again. Our goal was to finish rebuilding his home by the end of the month. And we would have got that if it wasn’t for this [hurricane].”
On Tuesday, Pierce had to lock down his home and head to the Jefferson County Emergency Operation Center, located in the county courthouse in Beaumont. There he joined local leaders and emergency responders in a meeting with the National Weather Service on Wednesday morning to be briefed on the latest weather forecast. It was typical hurricane planning – except for the pandemic.
“We use social distancing, we wear masks, we get our temperature taken all the time and we constantly wash our hands,” Pierce said. “We work very hard to follow the rules. We try to protect ourselves.”
He will be monitoring the state of the local roads, trying to plan how to get supplies to people after the hurricane passes.
“Our mission will be to coordinate help, ask for donations, cleaning supplies, tarps,” Pierce said.
But he worries how the pandemic will affect recovery efforts. Will people be as willing to donate cleaning supplies? Can they find enough volunteers to fix damaged homes and distribute donated furniture? COVID-19, he said, "is going to make it harder to bring people in to help."”
As of Aug. 25, the state reported 6,559 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Jefferson County. Amber Wozniak, a home health nurse, spent the past few days visiting her patients to be sure that they were ready to evacuate. She's concerned that the evacuations could help spread the disease.
“You have a lot of people that don’t want to do what should be done, like wearing a mask,” Wozniak said. “That’s already making it difficult to fight COVID, and on top of that you are evacuating… There will be a lot of people worried and the first thing on their minds won’t be COVID.”
Another challenge of simultaneously facing a hurricane and a pandemic is providing shelter and food.
Johnson, the local United Way CEO, said many in the community already had trouble feeding their families after Harvey, “And it’s going to be difficult to safely shelter when socially distancing at the same time.”
But Johnson said that COVID-19 has presented a silver lining: The local nonprofit organizations have strengthened their communications through the health crisis, which she believes will make it easier to coordinate help after the hurricane.
“One thing that Southeast Texas has, is that we stand together in storms and other problems, and we grow after that,” she said.
Pierce said that every hurricane is different, but what's certain is that there's will be a lot of work after it passes.
“On Friday, I went to a house that we had fixed [after Hurricane Harvey]," he said. "The woman was so proud of her home. She had lost everything and now she had new furniture and a new kitchen.
“We’ve done all that, and it’s a great blessing to see it, but we will just have to roll up our sleeves and do it again when this happens again," he added. "Whenever a storm comes, we will be there.”