Port Arthur Residents Remain Stranded, Holed Up In Bowling Alley Amid Floods

Aug 31, 2017
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Harvey continues to do incredible damage to the Gulf Coast. Much of Port Arthur, Texas, a city of 55,000 people, went underwater Tuesday. It's gotten a bit better since then, though it's still hard to get around. The military police and volunteers in boats are still pulling people out of flooded homes. NPR's Jason Beaubien is in Port Arthur, and he says the response to the flood is chaotic.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: A strip mall parking lot on the northern side of Port Arthur has been turned into one of the main staging areas for boats, National Guard troops and emergency personnel for this disaster. The area in front of the Office Depot serves as the helicopter landing pad. The Port Arthur Police have set up a command post in front of Walmart.

CORY COLE: Now, at this very moment, we're rescuing thousands of people. I mean it's just - we got people from all over the country that are coming in, and it's just a blessing, man.

BEAUBIEN: Port Arthur Deputy Police Chief Cory Cole is running the command post. Just next to him is a mismatch flotilla of small private boats on trailers. When rescue calls come in that the Coast Guard can't get to, Cole's Officers send out the volunteer vessels.

COLE: We're dispatched them out from this location. They're going out. They're going to the high water. They're rescuing people, and they're getting them out of this. It's messy business, but we're getting it done.

BEAUBIEN: He says officials don't know how many people are still trapped in their homes and need to be rescued.

COLE: We've probably got about 150 boats out there this morning, going out there, still doing - they're checking door to door. They're going through with a fine-tooth comb. A lot - there's still some people there. Some people don't want to come out. At this point, we don't have the facilities to force them to come out, so we just let them stay where they are because they said, hey, I'm good; I want to stay with my property. We're leaving them there.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER BUZZING)

BEAUBIEN: But many Port Arthur residents trapped behind the floodwaters don't want to stay where they are. A reddish-orange Coast Guard helicopter descended into the parking lot with Jose Wilson and his 5-year-old daughter. Wilson had been stuck in his apartment without electricity since Tuesday. He says he didn't want to venture out into the several feet of dirty water in the street with his daughter, so he finally phoned for help.

JOSE WILSON: (Unintelligible) - a lot of water there. Yeah, we decided to get out from there.

BEAUBIEN: All day long, helicopters buzzed overhead in this industrial Gulf Coast city. Port Arthur is home to the nation's largest oil refinery, which has been forced to close along with several other refineries because of the flooding. Officials told residents who were taking shelter at a bowling alley that they they're all going to be moved to a staging area for buses at the airport, but it's not clear exactly where they're going to go from there.

Amidst the uncertainty that Harvey has brought to so many people's lives here, Albert Randal, who was being ferried out of his neighborhood by a volunteer in a small fishing boat, said the huge outpouring of support has been uplifting.

ALBERT RANDAL: It's a blessing for you all. I'll tell you that, though (laughter). Boy, if it wouldn't be for these boats, it'd be messed up, man.

BEAUBIEN: When he first saw the boats coming through the floodwaters on his streets, he says it was as if a huge weight was lifted off his shoulders. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Port Arthur, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.