Texans reflect on hurricanes Harvey and Rita

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The area around Beaumont, Texas, still bears the scars of the impact of powerful hurricanes like Harvey and Rita. (Hailey Deeds)

By Jamie Calico and Hailey Deeds

Editor’s note: In Spring Term 2022, journalism students and faculty from BYU traveled to Beaumont, Texas, to learn about the impact hurricanes have on a community. They interviewed people whose lives were changed by natural disasters, and this article reflects some of the lessons learned.

Jeff Mathews coaches football at Vidor High School, about 95 miles east of Houston, Texas. When Hurricane Harvey hit the southeast coast of Texas in 2017, Mathews’ life changed forever.

He was not able to live in his badly damaged house for an entire year, and his children could not stay with him. Mathews eventually ended up living in the high school fieldhouse with many of the football players he coached. The students spent their free time during summer break and on weekends during the school year helping others clean out their houses from the mess left behind by Harvey.

“Until it happens to you, I know it’s probably a selfish thing to say, you don’t realize what something (like Harvey can do),” Mathews said.

Johnny Ross, a retired assistant school superintendent in Vidor and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, shared some of the spiritual experiences he had during hurricanes. When Hurricane Rita hit in 2005, Ross was a stake president and recalled a meeting he had to discuss evacuations before the storm arrived.

“They call them bridge calls, where you have 65 stake presidents. I think that was this whole area all the way from San Antonio, over to the Florida Panhandle. We were on the call every night monitoring this … all the missions and the stake presidents were on this call and there was some direction telling us what we were doing,” Ross said.

With information gathered from the news, they decided that they’d only be encouraging those in the Houston area to evacuate because that was where the hurricane would be heading. The next morning at 6 a.m., Ross received a phone call from a local bishop telling him that the hurricane had changed directions and was coming towards Vidor.

A wall of water up to 13 feet high threatened to overtake the community, which began evacuating right away.

“They were going to be OK. And I was so grateful, I thought we have plenty of time to leave, our people have plenty of time to leave and so we did,” Ross said.

According to Ross, one of Houston’s stake presidents had a problem to get transportation for about 200 members. The Church had authorized funds to get buses, but by that time there were none left. This meant there would be no way for them to evacuate. Now that the hurricane had changed directions, all of those people in Houston would be safe. Those living around Vidor received the warning with enough time to prepare, Ross said.

Kimble Callahan, the owner of Callahan Machine Works Inc. in Beaumont, Texas, just west of Vidor, said he feels fortunate that his family and house have never been directly affected by any hurricanes.

During Hurricane Rita in 2005, his family did evacuate, but thankfully came back and only had some yard cleanup to do. In 2017, when Hurricane Harvey hit, about 80 percent of the people in his neighborhood experienced damage to their houses, Callahan said. Once again, Callahan didn’t sustain damage to his home but was able to help those up and down the Gulf Coast clean out their properties.

Communities helping each other

One of these efforts has become known as the “comeback cooler.” These coolers often contain food, drinks, and over-the-counter medication. As a cooler gets passed along to different communities, individuals take what they need and send it on, continuing the cycle.

Mathews received one of these coolers after Hurricane Harvey.

“I think something happened over two years later in Sulphur, Louisiana, and we were able to fill that (cooler) up and send it to somebody else that needed it,” Mathews said.

Hurricane Harvey was an experience that left a mark on Mathews, making him more aware when it comes to assisting others in need.

“I think I’d be more apt to help people not that I wouldn’t before but I’m really gonna make a conscious effort to try to help people when that happens,” Mathews said.

Just like any other community, the residents of Beaumont didn’t always get along. However, Mathews described an experience in which he set aside his negative feelings to lend a hand, resulting in the beginning of a friendship.

One of the houses that was assigned to Mathews and his group to be cleaned out belonged to a man who didn’t have the best relationship with Mathews. Hurtful words had been said in the past but Matthews looked past it and continued to help him.

“I think he saw me with a different view. I saw him in a different view,” Mathews said.

Local churches have also stepped up to help in the aftermath of the hurricanes. Throughout the years, Ross held multiple callings within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He often worked with volunteers after natural disasters and provided them with names, places, and addresses where they could help clean up. In addition, he directed 14 missionaries and looked out for them as they served others during these events.

Taking a more personal approach to helping his community, Callahan uses his own experience from helping others that have been hit by a hurricane. He teaches his children to do the same. He shared how when his boys were just 14 years old they were able to be crew leaders and other volunteers.

“I was able to drop them off to others’ homes that needed to be gutted out, and they knew what they were doing. And I tell the homeowner ‘look even though he’s young, he knows what he’s doing’,” Callahan said.

One group that came to the aid of Beaumont residents was the so-called Cajun Navy, a loose group of volunteers from Louisiana that offered their own boats and time to provide disaster relief. Much of their work included evacuation of families.

Vidor resident Glen Ledger said during one hurricane, he and his family had 25 inches of water around their house. The Cajun Navy came to the rescue in a 19-foot bass boat.

“We were on the second floor on the stairs talking to these guys in a bass boat floating in my garage,” Ledger said.

Perspective gained from natural disasters

Being exposed to natural disasters and knowing how easily they can take away lives and material possessions has caused many individuals to shift the way they view the world.

Before Harvey hit, Mathews had just spent thousands of dollars renovating parts of his house such as the floors, appliances and bathrooms.

He said his perspective changed after going through Hurricane Harvey. He regrets not being able to gather the irreplaceable things such as photos of his children when they were young, high school yearbooks filled with memories of his past friends, and pictures of his playing days that he planned to pass down to his children.

“You can replace a couch, you can replace a refrigerator, you can replace anything in your house. Those kinds of things (photographs) right there, you can’t get them back, they’re gone forever,” Mathews said.

Another takeaway Mathews received from his situation living at the fieldhouse was understanding the struggles many of his students faced.

There were many players that didn’t have a place to stay when football season rolled around. After talking with the parents of these high schoolers, Mathews got them to agree to let their sons live at the fieldhouse with him. This experience opened his eyes and allowed him to see the boys as more than just athletes.

“In some ways, I was their dad. They were my kids because I was responsible for them,” Mathews said.

When it came to Ross’ experience and the last few moments he had with his belongings before Hurricane Rita, he recalled loading up with his family and looking at his house, wondering if it would be the last time he saw it and how severe the storm would be.

“You just have to decide that as important as you think this is, the important stuff is in the car and it’s going with you,” Ross said.

For Callahan, his exposure to hurricanes has made him aware of the good in his community. He described the countless times people have reached out and helped strangers with whom they have no connection.

“You see people from all walks of life helping each other out and not really questioning the needs of people, they just get in there and help. You see people wanting to reach out and help in lots of different ways,” Callahan said.

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