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BEYOND THE STORM — Derrick Freeman: Citizens should be encouraged,”stay strong”

Port Arthur Mayor Derrick Ford Freeman felt the effects of Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey as a citizen — his home was flooded — and as a city leader. Editor Ken Stickney talked with him about the storm’s impacts and plans to move forward.

Q: Harvey’s impacts were legendary. In short, how would you characterize the state of the city of Port Arthur last Sept. 1?

A: Devastated, would be one word. Lot of hurricanes have surge and wind events. This was flooding. When things flood, it touches everyone’s home. It was devastating to our community. We’ve been through it before. We are resilient. People know what to expect.

Q: What were the immediate (say, first-year) challenges?

A: Housing was the major challenge. With everyone’s homes — 70-85 percent were touched — housing was the most important issue. People were displaced, evacuated to  Dallas and Fort Worth, Austin. We had to find a way to get our citizenry back, to restore their lives, to restore their homes. We had to get city employees, teachers back into their homes and comfortable enough to provide services to students and to the city.

Q: What are the long-term needs, say five years out?

A:  It will still be with housing and infrastructure. We’re looking for hazard mitigation things right now. We need to lessen the impact of future storms with lifting pumps, by running gas lines to our pump stations. We need to deepen ditches, to widen culverts. We need to explain that the majority of the city infrastructure was built in the 1950s to the 1970s. Those included clay pipes that have deteriorated. We didn’t have PVC. We have to get to the aging infrastructure that is cracked, is crumbling and is infiltrated by rainwater. We’ve had people say they can’t flush toilets when it rains. The long-term plan is addressing those infrastructure problems and getting our city stabilized and back into balance.

Q: Roughly, where is Port Arthur today compared to Port Arthur on Aug. 31? How do we improve?

A: I’m not the one to ask because I’m my own worst critic. Yes sir, there are things we could be doing better. We’re trying to figure out ways for folks to come back home. Some people are gutting out houses, doing some remodeling.  There is lots of debris out there. We need to get to it, and the city needs to be strong and transparent about where we are. We need more code enforcement. We need to get the grass out, to make sure city codes are enforced. We need to make sure that the city’s aesthetics and appeal is there. We need to improve all around services: Answer phones at City Hall, respond to emails. We need to do the basics well and raise the level of excellence.

Q: What about industrial development? Projects still seem to be progressing.

A: The plants are encouraging. I’ve heard we have $30 billion in investment on the horizon. Harvey devastated our city, but washed away things that had to be exposed. Now we have a lot more people to the table to focus on the city’s basics: infrastructure, streets and drainage. That should be top of mind. Sometimes we get into politics and we lose focus on what’s most important. It’s a blessing that we have people coming to the table, that we have industry partners at the table. Longterm, the city of Port Arthur will grow as our partners grow.

Q: Industries have provided some opportunities for individuals here. How can we get people to take advantage of these?

A: I was talking with Dr. Ben Stafford, dean of workforce at Lamar State College Port  Arthur yesterday.  They have developed a new program in construction, training people to do basic framing, scaffolding. That’s what we need to rebuild the city. We need to diversify the economy to create new jobs. Oil and gas, petrochemicals: Those are booming. But industry always looks to downsize, to bring technology in in ways to be more efficient. That’s why we need to diversify, to not put all our eggs in one basket. We need to manufacture solar panels in Port Arthur to open up new job possibilities. We need more manufacturing jobs and warehousing capacity. We have the components: port, rail, highway system. We have a workforce system that is blue collar and ready to work. I think we’re a perfect fit for new jobs.

Q: How should we encourage citizens?

A: Well, citizens should be encouraged. Stay strong. Call my office at 409-983-8105 to be directed to resources if you are still in need. Be resilient. If you have the capacity, check on neighbors, too, especially if they are displaced and encourage them to come back to Port Arthur. The foundation of Port Arthur is built on community. Hug necks, shake hands.

This story appeared in Volume 4 of The Port Arthur News Profile, April 29, 2018

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