Finding a sense of purpose in Port Arthur, Texas

Published 4:01 pm Sunday, November 5, 2017

In late August, the country watched in shock as Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Gulf Coast of East Texas and West Louisiana. The flooding that ensued displaced countless people as their homes took in anywhere from a few inches to several feet of water.

One city that was majorly affected was Port Arthur, Texas. Sitting on the Gulf Coast and along the shore of Sabine Lake, which forms the southernmost part of the border between Texas and Louisiana, Port Arthur suffered greatly, with 98 percent of the city flooding.

Boone Newspapers, Inc., which owns the Austin Daily Herald, also owns the Port Arthur News, and many of its employees lost a lot from the storm. To help them get their lives back on track, Boone Newspapers asked for employees from its other papers around the country to travel to Port Arthur in two-week shifts and help out at the Port Arthur News.

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I went to Port Arthur on Oct. 15 to start my two-week shift down there. When I first arrived, I experienced the joy of driving in Port Arthur traffic on my way to the hotel. I’ve never been anywhere where stop signs are treated as suggestions and not actual laws, but I can scratch that off my bucket list now.

When I arrived at the hotel, I could have sworn it was abandoned.

Sitting outside the hotel were piles of furniture and carpet, casualties of the floodwaters. Upon entering the hotel, it was impossible to avoid the musty smell of drying sheetrock and insulation. Lining the first floor corridors were floor fans running non-stop. It was then that the severity of the situation began to kick in.

98 percent of Port Arthur, Texas, experienced flooding during Hurricane Harvey. Photo by Jesse Wright/

The next day I set out on what would become one of the most humbling experiences I’ve had. Simply driving around and seeing the piles of debris was eye opening. The Port Arthur News building was out of commission; workmen were busy trying to get it back into working order after it too suffered flood damage.

As far as articles went, I can count on one hand the number of articles I wrote in my brief time there that did not pertain to Harvey. But talking to these people and writing their stories gave me a sense of purpose. Sure, my main reason for being there was to help the Port Arthur News, but there was something else. These people, who had lost so much, wanted more than anything for their stories to be heard and for somebody to listen. I spoke to people who broke down while they told me their stories, but kept talking despite the pain they felt. I knew that I was in a position to get their voices heard, and I can only hope I didn’t let them down.

But not all of the stories were sad. One thing I frequently heard during my stay was that the storm brought out the best in people. I got to talk to people and organizations that were providing help to storm victims, and once again I felt that sense of purpose because I was in a position to get that information out there. I spoke to a faith-based group offering physical and emotional aid, churches organizing cleanup efforts, and attended a fundraising cook-off where I stuffed myself with so much chili and gumbo that my belly button went from being an innie to an outie. The community truly poured its heart into helping those in need, and they proudly proclaimed they were “Texas strong.”

I returned to Austin on Oct. 29, a little more grateful and a little more compassionate. I was glad to be home, but had no regrets about spending that time in Port Arthur. There is still much work to be done down there, but in the end, I believe they will come out better.

Now, if only they could learn to stop at stop signs.