Thousands of Low-Income Residents in Flooded Port Arthur Suffer Slow FEMA Aid

The Texas city, hit hard by Hurricane Harvey's extreme rainfall, has a large African American population and is bordered by refineries.

Neighborhoods in Port Arthur, Texas, flooded quickly as the remnants of Hurricane Harvey dumped 19 inches of rain on the city in late August. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Neighborhoods in Port Arthur, Texas, flooded quickly as the remnants of Hurricane Harvey dumped 26 inches of rain on the city in late August. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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More than two weeks after a plea from the mayor of Port Arthur, Texas—“Our whole city is under water”—went viral, thousands of flooded-out residents remained homeless, and community leaders, angry with the speed of the federal government’s response, were considering a former youth correctional facility for housing. The government began installing large, temporary tents for groups of residents to stay in while more permanent arrangements could be made.

In the weeks after the storm, residents had struggled to find housing. “They are living wherever they can lay their heads at this particular point—garages, with relatives, with friends, in cars, you name it,” Hilton Kelley, director of Community in Power and Development Association, said. “Infants, the handicapped are also homeless. We have a lot of elderly folks; all of them are homeless.”

Flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Harvey forced residents of the largely African American community to evacuate their homes, as well as the city’s emergency shelter, after 26 inches of rain fell on August 29.

Port Arthur’s residents have long struggled with environmental issues. Toxic air emissions from refineries that surround the city, including the largest oil refinery in the country, routinely release pungent emissions that cause residents eyes and noses to sting.  Now, an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 residents in the town of 55,000 are displaced. Many of them were evicted from low-income rental units that are now being gutted to prevent mold growth following the flood.

Amid the intense frustration and deprivation after the storm, community leaders are at odds with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) over the speed of federal aid to their city, saying FEMA is to blame for the failure to provide adequate housing.

“We were delayed because we were not put on the housing list, it was just Tuesday that the order came down that they were going to release the funds for emergency housing for the city of Port Arthur,” Kelley said.  “We were somehow left off the damn list.”

FEMA spokesman Robert Howard said Jefferson County, which includes Port Arthur, was approved for FEMA assistance starting on Aug. 30, and that all disaster housing assistance was available to Jefferson County residents at that time. The agency had provided $12 million in assistance to 20,092 residents in Jefferson County as of Sept. 11, he said.

Port Arthur officials say additional housing assistance wasn’t made available to them until Sept. 12.

“Typically under lesser circumstances they are able to place survivors in hotels and apartments and other rental facilities, but because the damage was so widespread, they had to enact these other housing options,” City of Port Arthur spokesperson LaRisa Carpenter said.

Port Arthur is also disadvantaged by its size when it comes to securing federal assistance. While a large city like Houston has teams of employees trained in the bureaucratic technicalities of dealing with FEMA, Port Arthur has a small staff scrambling to deal with extraordinary demands amid the flooding.

“It’s local governments’ responsibility to plug in and tell the state what they want but not all local governments are as resourced as major metropolitan areas like Houston and Galveston,” said Lillie Coney, legislative director for U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas).  

FEMA has to “have some resource in place to help them with the administrative burden of being able to plug in and do the things they need to do, especially a place like Port Arthur that was completely under water,” she said.

Finding temporary housing for the residents of Port Arthur has not been easy.

City officials working with FEMA arranged for two barges, with berths for approximately 600 individuals, to provide temporary housing earlier this week. Inspection of the World War II-era barges by the U.S. Coast Guard, however, found safety issues, including missing guardrails, and permits for the barges were denied, causing further outrage from the community.

“They are playing games with the lives of thousands of African Americans here in the city of Port Arthur,” Kelley said. “I do believe that if this was a more affluent community that we would be seeing immediate action. We would see tents up, we would see trailers rolling in, and yet, now we are playing games with two raggedy barges that the Coast Guard would not even let be towed to the city of Port Arthur.”

Michael Sinegal, a county commissioner for Jefferson County said he is working with FEMA on other potential housing options, including tents, some of which are now going up, vacant stores and a former juvenile correction facility in the nearby town of Nederland, that could provide temporary housing.

Others have objected to the later option because it looks like a prison, but the county is running out of options, Sinegal said.

“With the housing needs we have, if we have to put some daisies around it and dress it up a little bit, if it’s the only option we have, we need to use it.”