Danielle Shelton, Vista College Director of Financial Aid, describes her experience with Hurricane Harvey and how the community came together to rebuild from tragedy.
BEAUMONT, Texas — March 2018
The Devastating Details of Hurricane Harvey
It sounds like a freight train coming. The wind builds and builds, and you have to scream to hear yourself talk. Soon, the sky seems to open up and drop a sea of water onto the world.
“The water was pouring down the fireplace in the house,” says Danielle Shelton, Vista College Director of Financial Aid and Beaumont resident. “Rain was going up to the second floor, upstairs, by 6 a.m.”
Shelton recalls her experience with Hurricane Harvey, a hurricane which left thousands of Texans devastated, homeless, and in search of water and food with nowhere to go. Many had to seek refuge in shelters, while others were fortunate enough to have friends and family to turn to. Some had only the kindness and generosity of strangers to help them survive. Many of them never saw it coming.
“We weren’t expecting it to hit,” says Shelton, who thought the hurricane was going to land in Louisiana. “The hurricane hit land three times.”
Hurricane Harvey was a Category 4 storm. According to the National Hurricane Center (NHC), hurricane categories range from Category 1 which ranks as very dangerous, to Category 5, which is catastrophic. A Category 4 hurricane will cause most trees to be uprooted or snapped and power outages due to downed power poles. Because of the magnitude of damage from a Category 4 storm, outages may last weeks or even months. Additionally, affected areas may be uninhabitable for weeks, months, or potentially even longer.
Hurricane Harvey began with a tropical wave off the coast of Africa on August 13th. It had turned into a tropical storm by the 17th, but after hitting the Windward Islands, it weakened. By August 24th, though, the storm re-strengthened into a Category 1 hurricane, and it rapidly intensified, becoming a Category 4 just one day later on August 25th.
It was on August 25th when Harvey made landfall in the town of Rockport, where winds surged at 130 mph. The slow-moving hurricane remained over the area until August 30th, causing flash flooding and destruction throughout southeast Texas. Beaumont saw 49.06 inches of rainfall, and more than 19 trillion gallons of rainwater fell upon parts of Texas.
“The amount of water that was dumped was crazy,” says Shelton.
The storm took at least 88 lives according to an October report released by the Department of State Health Services. The majority of deaths were caused by people drowning or by fallen trees, while others were the result of unsafe conditions, traffic accidents, and infection. It was one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.
Shelton was home with her family on the night the hurricane hit. According to Shelton, the rain started at 2 a.m., and by 4 a.m., “Buckets were pouring in.” It was when the water got past the electrical outlets that Shelton and her family realized it was time to get out. They gathered a few necessities like their photo ID cards, medications, clothing, and cell phones and chargers before getting on a rescue boat.
Shelton’s entire neighborhood was devastated. Trees and power lines were down. Homes were destroyed. Snakes were everywhere. Shelton recalls how terrifying it was just to step in the water to get on the rescue boat. She didn’t know if the water was electrified because of fallen power lines.
After they got off the boat at a grocery store, they were going to take a bus to a shelter, but the bus wouldn’t take their two dogs — and they weren’t going to leave their dogs behind. Thousands of pets are thought to be lost or missing as a result of Hurricane Harvey.
The Risks of All That Water
Flood water brings a lot of risks others may not realize. When a Category 4 hurricane strikes, it’s not just damaged homes and the search for food, water, and shelter on a storm survivor’s mind. Pets are displaced. Memories are lost, and flood water is contaminated with billions of bacteria.
An analysis of the flood water showed the bacteria levels were hundreds of times above normal levels and contained E. coli. If you consume water or food contaminated with E. coli, you might get sick and experience symptoms of food poisoning, but E. coli can also lead to pneumonia and urinary tract infections. Additionally, in the aftermath of a Category 4 hurricane, it might not be easy to get the medical care you need as quickly as you need it.
Perhaps even worse than E. coli is the threat of contracting the dangerous Vibrio bacteria. The most common strains of Vibrio exist in warm brackish or saltwater. It is possible to become infected with the Vibrio bacteria if an open wound is exposed to it. This can lead to severe illness and even limb amputation if not addressed, but most people with a mild case of vibriosis, the illness caused by Vibrio, recover after a few days.
There was also the threat of coming in contact with dangerous sharp objects, chemicals, human waste, pesticides, and anything that was swept up by the flood water — like wildlife. Alligators, snakes, and other animals were also searching for higher ground. In addition, there was the problem of mosquitoes. Standing water attracts mosquitos as a natural breeding ground, and mosquitos can carry Zika and the West Nile virus.
The Aftermath of the Storm
Shelton and her family were able to dodge the many storm-related dangers they had to face, and they are staying with her dad in Louisiana. As a result of Harvey, Shelton’s commute to work is 45 minutes, and her home requires about $30,000 in repairs. But she’s thankful to have her dad to stay with while she repairs her home a little bit at a time. She says some people are not even at that point yet.
“A lot of people aren’t able to spend money to keep fixing their house without two incomes,” says Shelton. “There are thousands of homes destroyed.”
Water can cause serious damage to a home, especially water that is likely contaminated. Although a home might not be beyond repair after a flood, the costs can be so high that homeowners need to decide whether it’s worth it to perform the repairs or not. Water can warp a home’s structure, destroy insulation, and contaminate soft furniture. Household chemicals and sewage can mix with flood water and spread throughout a home. Mold can also become an issue. It only takes 24 to 48 hours for mold to develop after a flood. Objects made of glass, metal, or plastic might be salvageable, but everything else will likely need to be tossed.
How Harvey’s Devastation Affected Beaumont
Hurricane Harvey caused more than $125 billion in federal relief, affected 13 million people, and damaged 203,000 homes as of September 2017. As a southeast Texan town, Beaumont suffered a lot of damage. In addition to the destruction caused by the storm, a Crosby chemical plant caught fire, and the Beaumont municipal water system failed, leaving thousands of Beaumont residents without clean, running water. Businesses couldn’t open their doors and serve customers without running water for sanitary purposes, and people started to panic for fear they’d have to go without food and water.
Despite it all, Beaumont has pulled together to fight the tragic consequences of natural disaster. Perhaps it’s Beaumont’s past that helped make it the strong community it is today. Beaumont became a town on December 16, 1838, and it was named after the wife of a businessman — Mary Dewburleigh Barlace Warren Beaumont.
In the beginning, the town was known for farming and cattle raising, and later, it became a top lumber and milling town. On January 10, 1901, an oil gusher, known as the Lucas Gusher exploded, shooting oil into the air. After the explosion, the town boomed in population and helped make the U.S. a top petroleum producer. The population grew from 9,000 in January 1901 to 30,000 in March 1901. It was estimated that Beaumont had a population of 118,299 as of July 2016.
When asked what she likes about living in the Beaumont area, Shelton says Beaumont is, “Very southern, hospitable, also kinda rugged…Like a rugged Texas feel. Very neighborly. Every community is pretty close and well connected.” Shelton also describes Beaumont as having a “small town mentality,” and it’s that small town mentality that may have saved hundreds of lives.
For example, Shelton and her husband volunteered with Catholic Charities on weekends to help members of their community gut their homes. She and her husband would receive texts of a new house to gut, how many volunteers were on the job, and what exactly needed to be done. They first focused on the elderly, the disabled, and low-income residents, working mostly in the Orange and Port Arthur areas.
“You put a mask on and do what you can do,” says Shelton.
One of the houses she gutted had a floor that was so mold-covered, it had to be taken out in wheelbarrows. “It makes you appreciate what you do have,” she says.
Fortunately, Shelton’s husband knows some construction. They gutted their house and had to let it dry out for three weeks.
How Vista Beaumont Has Been Impacted
The Vista Beaumont campus underwent severe roof damage which caused leakage as a consequence of Hurricane Harvey. The campus is still waiting for some repairs, mainly structural, but, “We’re up and running now,” says Shelton. Although it could have been worse for Vista College, the hurricane had a big impact on students nonetheless.
Many students were part of the mandatory evacuation and had to live in hotels or shelters across the state. Some were rescued by the National Guard. According to Shelton, families have been living in tents, RVs, and hotels and showering in truck stops. “There’s nowhere to go,” she says. Fortunately, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was set up right next to campus to assist students in finding temporary housing and other needs.
“Basically our whole student population was affected,” Shelton conveys, and the college was closed for three weeks. However, Shelton says the college was able to “help a lot with the recovery stage.”
Vista College raised over $10,000 and collected donations such as food, water, and clothing to distribute to those in need — first tending to students and then members of the community. They also used funds to buy meals, gift cards, and personal hygiene items for students.
Other Vista College locations, such as the Las Cruces and Longview campuses, also collected items. They loaded a U-Haul and brought what they had received to the Beaumont campus. “We had a lot of people come through,” says Shelton. The college put signs out letting people know they had items to give away. When the storm was over, everyone helped each other however they could, and people who were not affected by the hurricane “have really stepped up” in the community, according to Shelton.
As of November, FEMA spent about $1.4 billion helping Hurricane Harvey victims with basic needs. About $186 million went toward hotel rooms for Texans in need of shelter.
Rebuilding the Community Together
In a disaster, there are three stages says Shelton: rescue, recovery, and rebuilding. During the rebuilding phase, when people regain strength and can focus, they come together, and they push forward. That’s what the residents of Beaumont did and continue to do, months after Hurricane Harvey hit. It is people like Shelton and her husband who are helping to rebuild the community and encouraging others to work together.
There has been assistance for displaced pets, too. Organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) have worked to find displaced pets new homes and provide them with food and shelter. Smaller organizations from all over the country also chipped in where they could as well. No living creature was forgotten after the storm, even if they were not found.
If Hurricane Harvey was a Category 4 storm, then the Texan spirit is a Category 5. Despite the devastation, thousands survived and continue to cope with the aftermath every day. They continue to repair and rebuild their lives, homes, and futures. As of late November, almost three months after the hurricane hit, more than 47,000 people are still living in FEMA-paid hotel rooms, and more than 90,000 have filed claims through the National Flood Insurance Program. Plenty of others need help with housing and are struggling to find shelter.
“Everyone just needs to stay alive,” says Shelton. “It’s crazy, but you’re really just trying to stay alive.”
Though six months have passed since the storm made landfall, things are still far from normal for Shelton and other residents of the Beaumont area.
“We’re still in the rebuilding stage, still displaced,” she said. “It’s a slow process. Supplies are still hard to get.”
Items that are normal, run-of-the-mill purchases for those unaffected by the storm are still tough to find in Beaumont. Key rebuilding products like flooring and cabinets aren’t available in local stores due to high demand and are on backorder.
At Vista College’s campus, classes have resumed for students and Shelton says the school has returned to a “sense of normalcy, but there’s still a lot of people who need help.”
Her contractor thinks Danielle will be able to move back into their house at the end of March 2018.