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Josh Bergeron: Public attention moves on shortly after disaster strikes

By Josh Bergeron

josh.bergeron@salisburypost.com

After two weeks reporting in flood-damaged Port Arthur, Texas, I’ve gained a much better understanding for the time that disaster recovery requires.

The nation largely moves on from a focus on disaster-damaged areas shortly after the storm hits. Sure, volunteers come in from several states away to help, but the larger American public does not continue watching when recovery starts.

In Port Arthur, the most severe bands of Tropical Storm Harvey struck in the final week of August, causing catastrophic flooding and upending lives. For many people, the recovery has just started.

With some idea about the scale of Tropical Storm Harvey’s impact on Port Arthur, I flew to the city on Sept. 17 to help a sister newspaper of the Salisbury Post — The Port Arthur News.

The first flight took me from Charlotte to Dallas. Aboard the second flight, I traveled from Dallas to the Jack Brooks Regional Airport in Beaumont, Texas. Port Arthur is a short drive away.

Several American Red Cross workers traveled to Beaumont on the same flight, and in the parking lot of the Jack Brooks Regional Airport were many trailers used by Environmental Protection Agency workers. However, the drive to the hotel where I’d stay for two weeks didn’t provide signs of the devastating flooding that would inundate Port Arthur.

I’d get my first glimpse of the effects of the storm when walking into my hotel. Contractors had cordoned off a majority of the building’s bottom floor as they cut drywall above flood levels.

Later, I drove around Port Arthur to get a sense of the city’s layout and see other effects of the storm. Massive debris piles sat along the sides of most streets, and I parked my car to walk through residential streets to more closely examine the contents of debris piles — composed of drywall, carpet, damaged furniture, mattresses,  clothes and household items.

One of my first stories in Port Arthur focused on a local bowling alley that opened its doors to people fleeing flooded homes. During a three-day period, the bowling alley played host to hundreds of people and a few animals. The bowling alley, however, was just a temporary stop; people would later be taken to other cities and shelters.

Early in my stay in Port Arthur, I also wrote about an oil refinery fire that tossed a massive, black plume of smoke into the sky. After a relatively uneventful first day, I begged the editor of the Port Arthur News to toss some stories my way. I did not expect one of those stories would include an oil refinery fire.

Driving to the scene, I could see the smoke from at least two miles away. Initially, I was excited about the prospect of covering the fire. After roughly an hour, I developed a headache and began to regret standing so close to the acrid smoke. Thankfully, the headache vanished after I left the scene.

A majority of my coverage, however, focused on the recovery of local residents from the hurricane.

Harvey’s toll on businesses seemed to be less severe than its effect on individuals. Many businesses were flooded or damaged, but hundreds of people lost their homes entirely. Local residents who were not homeowners, for example, received eviction notices following the flooding. Under Texas law, landlords can evict people if the property is deemed “unusable for residential purposes” following a disaster.

To say that flooding was catastrophic or that rain totals topped yearly averages in a few days does not adequately illustrate how local residents were affected.

Renters, evicted from their homes, were forced to quickly find a place to live. Hotels were full, leaving relatively few options.

On their own or with help from a contractor or volunteer group, homeowners ripped out drywall and other moldy items. Without another place to stay, some were forced to live in their homes.

It was particularly hard to write about the experience of people who were rescued from neck-deep floodwater. For a moment, imagine watching floodwater pour into your house as a storm rages outside. Visualize the experience of Port Arthur residents who climbed onto their roofs and hoped a rescue boat would pass by.

In one story, I wrote about three Mississippi men who traveled to Texas simply because they wanted to help. Truthfully, they didn’t have much of a plan other than to bring enough gas to power their boats for a while and rescue anyone who needed help. Their generosity was repeated thousands of times across the state of Texas.

When I arrived in Texas, many residents had just started the process of gutting their flood-damaged homes. Others were still living in tent cities. Some hadn’t returned from the cities to which they were evacuated.

So, when natural disaster strikes, we shouldn’t think of it in the relatively short spectrum that’s most common. National news outlets should recommit themselves to sustained coverage of recovery, too.

For too many residents, flooding brought by Tropical Storm Harvey will fundamentally change their lives. Too many people will never return to a normal life.

Contact Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246

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