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Rockport, Dickinson, Port Arthur: Five years after Harvey

Yeah, we’re at “five years after Hurricane Harvey made landfall” time. Here’s a long story about how three smaller towns that were in its path are doing now.

Each day, Gary Billy drives past the empty corner lot where his restaurant once stood. Sometimes, he looks over at the scrubby grass, the crumbling foundation and the fading blue sign for JJ’s Little Bay Café.

“We put our hearts and souls into that business, into that property — expanding and doing things,” he said. “Sometimes it hits you and you’re just like, ‘Man, you miss it.’ But life just keeps going.”

The restaurant was among hundreds of buildings that were destroyed five years ago when Hurricane Harvey made landfall in this small Gulf Coast city.

Now, residents and elected officials here say they are recovering from the devastation, mirroring other small towns affected by Harvey. That said, they still have more work to do to bring displaced residents back home and get their infrastructure ready for future storms. The city also is facing an affordable housing shortage, a wave of ongoing construction projects and the lingering emotional toll from the disaster.

The Southeast Texas community of Dickinson has its challenges, too. Homeowners there remain skeptical that the city’s mitigation efforts are enough to prevent other disasters.

In Port Arthur, near Louisiana, the largest mitigation projects await federal funding approvals before they can get off the ground.

“The challenge is preparing for the next storm,” said Aransas County Judge C.H. “Burt” Mills, Jr. “There’s going to be one — we just don’t know when. (We’re) trying to prepare to where we don’t have near the disaster that we had with Harvey.”

[…]

The past half-decade has been trying for the city of Dickinson, which saw about 85 percent of its land mass go under water during the hurricane. Some people packed up and left, but most rebuilt, banding together in love of their community. Since then, however, they’ve taken on a particular, more despondent brand of resiliency: They eye the city’s ongoing mitigation efforts and fear that they are sitting ducks.

[Paster William H.] King meets those residents often. Leaving the church that day, he drove his truck through town and descended into the Bayou Chantilly neighborhood, cornered in by I-45 on one side and Dickinson Bayou on another.

It used to be a lovely place — lush and well-kept, homeowner Gayann Corbin said. Now, it’s dotted with “for sale” signs, displaying people’s slow exodus from the neighborhood.

She and her husband, Bob, met King on their corner along with a half-dozen neighbors. Most people in Dickinson know of King, since his church serves about 60 percent of the community and became a distribution center during Harvey. (He was also a city councilman for 21 years, and he’s running for county judge.)

The conversation turned to the city’s disaster response, and the gaggle erupted into overlapping speech. The most visible project to date is the widening of West Gum Bayou and the construction of several detention ponds to expand the capacity for floodwater. They weren’t buying it.

“I don’t have a degree in engineering … but I believe if we had a pump station pumping water out of the bayou into the contributory of the Galveston Bay, that would be better than widening the area,” Arthur Francis said. “It doesn’t matter how deep you have it and how wide it is. The water has nowhere to go.”

The city also is turning to voluntary buyouts and acquisitions, programs that allow it to buy people’s homes in flood-prone zones and either demolish them entirely or rebuild them higher. Corbin and Francis said they don’t expect many people to bite.

Francis said he hasn’t seen Dickinson keep a “pulse” on its people, and Noel Larsen added that she feels the city sat on its hands for years after the storm. In 2019, she saw some of her neighbors remove some obstructions from the bayou in order to aid water flow, frustrated that the city hadn’t done so itself.

Jon Junemann, who has lived in his home since 1975, jabbed his fingers in a fury.

“It takes a quarter of an inch of rain to absorb in this gumbo clay in one hour,” he said. “Where is the water going to go? It’s going to be right here in Lake Chantilly again.”

City Manager Theo Melancon took the helm in 2021 after a period of tumult among Dickinson’s leadership. He said residents in any city tend to feel hopeless when it takes years for the biggest projects to get underway, and King added that he feels Dickinson residents feel a particular apathy toward their local government.

Even then, Melancon said Dickinson officials haven’t been sitting around — they earmarked $70 million in state and federal funds for mitigation, with more in the application process. Already, the West Gum Bayou widening is underway, and about 110,000 square yards of dirt have been moved in ditch cleanups.

Dickinson also plans to construct a diversionary canal that reroutes floodwater and deposits it further east on Dickinson Bayou, and city leaders are exploring a pumping project at Benson Bayou.

“As dirt starts moving and turning, I believe people will see,” Melancon said. “I don’t think a lot of people understand the size and scope of the projects.”

Melancon agreed that the buyout programs might not have enough takers, especially since people worry whether they can find other, similarly priced homes in Dickinson.

There’s a lot more, and much of it zooms in on individual stories. I found the Dickinson stuff particularly interesting – my wife’s grandmother still lives in Dickinson, in a house that was completely flooded by Harvey and has been at least somewhat rehabilitated. I would not want to live there for a variety of reasons, but the concern that people won’t be able to find a replacement house they can afford is legitimate. I have no idea what can be done other than to throw a whole lot more money at the problem. Dickinson is in Galveston County, and since the story mentions it here’s the William H. King III for Galveston County Judge webpage. He’s not going to win, but if you live in that county you should at least know who he is.

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One Comment

  1. C.L. says:

    Re: “I don’t have a degree in engineering … but I believe if we had a pump station pumping water out of the bayou into the contributory of the Galveston Bay, that would be better than widening the area,” Arthur Francis said. “It doesn’t matter how deep you have it and how wide it is. The water has nowhere to go.”

    I’m no engineer, either, but if a storm surge is what’s causing water to back up into Galveston Bay and is preventing local tributaries from rapidly draining into Galveston Bay, seems to me that pumping bayou water directly into the Bay is a fruitless endeavor to solve the problem, Sisyphus.

    Sam Kinnison had a comedy bit decades ago where he suggested that instead of sending food to impoverished countries, we should be sending them suitcases so they can move out of the desert. I can’t help but think the folks that continue to flood and rebuild and flood and rebuild ad nauseum should consider relocating until the US wises up and starts adopting H2O control methods perfected by the Dutch.