It’s Thanksgiving. April Harrison, 43, and her three boys — Ayden, 7, Andrew, 18, and Aaron, 24 — sit in the few plastic folding chairs they have scattered among a sea of boxes reaching 4 feet tall. April takes a break from cooking to sit in one plastic patio chair in her new cramped kitchen. She’s trying to prepare Thanksgiving dinner the way her dear mother taught her, even though her mother can’t be with them this Thanksgiving for the first time since April can remember.
Her mother stayed in Beaumont and was not affected by the hurricane, but she lost her legs to diabetes and couldn’t make the drive north to Fort Worth.
April and her boys evacuated Port Arthur when Hurricane Harvey flooded her two-story townhome. There was not an initial mandatory evacuation so April thought they were safe.
But then the rain came and did not stop. She watched it crawl up her backyard to the base of her house and into the garage and front door. They moved to the second floor, bringing as many of their first-floor belongings in the living room with them to the bedrooms on the second floor. Then they stacked their TVs atop their dining room table and couches.
“We had gathered up food and huddled together upstairs. When I looked out the window, all I could see was water all around. The houses were all covered in water,” she said.
They started to hear helicopters overhead rescuing neighbors. Boats motored down their street. The water was rising and fast. It was time to go.
“When I looked out the window, I saw the sea of water,” she said.
The rest of the afternoon was a blur. She felt chaos creep inside with the water outside her home. She remembers about 1 p.m., Aug. 30, yelling it was time to get out. She called 911 panicking and screaming. “We need to get out of here! We need help!”
The 911-answering service said they could not help because they were drowning in emergency evacuations but to try the fire department.
The fire department, too, did not have enough hands on deck, so they advised the hysterical and desperate mother to put a white sheet on her fence and front door as a sign of surrender and to sit and wait, hoping a volunteer citizen would stop and rescue them. All April could do was pray that her white flag of surrender would grab someone’s attention.
April hates water. She almost drowned at 15 attempting to swim in the deep end of a swimming pool when she didn’t know how to swim. Although her friend saved her, she was left with severe anxiety about water.
Human Services Manager Marie Francis with Fort Worth’s government entity Community Action Partners (CAP) said so many people who evacuated New Orleans and areas that Katrina affected moved to Galveston, Port Arthur and Houston. So this was a shock for them to have to go through this again. And, there are people like April, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder because she has had to evacuate three hurricanes over the last 12 years.
“Some [people relocating to Fort Worth] definitely showed signs of PTSD,” Marie said.
“LET’S GO. YOU’VE GOTTA GET OUT!”
A citizen rescue boat finally arrived. April and family rushed and packed a bag. She remembered medicine for her 7-year-old son’s ADHD and her diabetes and blood pressure, toothbrushes and toothpaste, but forgot clothes.
They waded through black water with bugs, trash and an oily sheen on the surface that smelled of sulfur. She and two of her boys struggled into the boat with one small bag as the rain drained from the heavens. Then things got blurrier. Time warped.
She managed to document some of the rescue on her iPhone and iPad with pictures and videos. As she watched them again for the first time in two months since the evacuation, she was in shock. She barely remembered most of what she had recorded. She just kept saying, “Oh my God, oh my God.”
The rescue volunteers in the videos kept the conversation light, making the occasional joke to put them at ease. They looked around their fishing boat at the homes with water nearly up to the top of the first floor. Destruction was everywhere.
The boat motored them to higher ground, which was a highway ramp. April, Ayden and Aaron (Andrew was safe in Houston where he attends college studying music education) were told to pile onto a cramped flatbed truck and wait.
How long? They did not have a clue.
But in a state of shock, they sat for hours on that flatbed truck in the pouring rain.
“We were just piled up like little rats,” April said.
Once there wasn’t an inch of space left, the truck started to move up the highway ramp as April dangled her legs over the edge. People all around her moaned and groaned about their discomfort and the relentless rain.
Then, every shelter they stopped at was full, so the flatbed truck would have to move on. At one point the truck stopped because they weren’t sure they could make it through yet another patch of high water. But they did and inched forward. When April passed a broadcast news truck that wasn’t from southeast Texas, it occurred to her this was making national news. This was more serious than she thought.
At a church in the next town, they finally found refuge. April said from the moment they got off the truck, the community welcomed her with unforgettable kindness. They finally had a place to rest. But the next morning, they were told they needed to leave.
Where to now? Nobody had a clue.
“I’m tired of running from hurricanes,” April said. “I pulled up my FEMA account, and it is like, Rita, Ike and then Harvey. I’m just tired of running away from hurricanes.”
All that was left for April to return to in Port Arthur after this hurricane was what she and the locals called “tent city” — a parking lot in front of a civic center filled with camping tents, which looked like a miserable situation to April. “I said to my kids, we are not going back this time.”
After waiting nine hours at the airport, April and her family were herded onto an Air Force plane from Nevada. “The first words spoken to us were ‘Welcome to Dallas!’ Everyone here has been so compassionate, giving and hospitable.” She and her family unloaded at DFW Airport, where April says she felt nothing but kindness.
On the edge of town, in a sort of desolate no man’s land, is the Wilkerson-Greines Activity Center where evacuees like April and her children took shelter. Bald fields and outdated buildings make this place feel like anything but home. It isn’t within walking distance to anything. It would make someone with wanderlust homesick. But April insisted it was all a gift from above. She said they had everything they needed. And sometimes people would come in and bring entertainment or karaoke, which she and Ayden loved.
Catholic Charities has already helped relocate 100 households representing 242 individuals. Bryan Knox, the Harvey Case Manager with Catholic Charities, said that number is growing daily. Bryan said so many people who relocated here didn’t even want to mess with FEMA or any social services because of how difficult it can be to sort through what is at times a bureaucratic mess, so the total number of people moving to Fort Worth is unclear. Since FEMA has extended assistance, some are still living in hotels since early last September, and some are still moving.
Bryan says that Catholic Charities is providing long-term care — two to three years for evacuees. He had a partner working with him who quit because of the overwhelming work it took and continues to take.
Marie said CAP had the capacity to provide a lot of the services the evacuees needed, as did many local churches and nonprofits. CAP alone, apart from Catholic Charities, saw 109 families come through the Resource Fair but knew of only 60 relocating to Fort Worth permanently. The ones that stayed did not have much of anything to go back to.
CAP, a social service agency within the city, is rare. It made Fort Worth more prepared to assist new Fort Worthians.
“Only a handful of municipalities have that designation,” Marie said. “We are a weird duck within the flock of geese in the city. We are different because we are truly a social service industry [but a municipal entity].”
And Bryan said word has gotten around that Fort Worth has done such a good job welcoming evacuees. Families who evacuated to Dallas have relocated to Fort Worth. Some families have had such good experiences in Fort Worth that they have called their families still in southeast Texas to tell them they should move here.
April had great job skills and a solid resume. She had a good job working at the local school district in Port Arthur, but the building she worked in was destroyed. And she knew she wasn’t going back this time.
April was given a job lead by one of the many volunteers at the shelter. She worked on her resume, applied and got an interview … then waited.
“HEY!!! Just got the official job offer!!!!” April sent in a text Oct. 19.
Then moments later.
“I just NOW got the call that I was approved for the apartment!! God, is SO good, girl…”
She was getting so tired of months in the tiny hotel room in Forest Hill.
April’s path to a new life in Fort Worth has been anything but easy. Salvaging and moving what was left of her belongings back to Fort Worth was her biggest nightmare. But she also spent countless hours on the phone with insurance companies, FEMA, and Fort Worth city officials to get her into housing. She lost her home, car, and frequent visits to her beloved mother in Beaumont. She sat in the rain for hours, slept on cots, lived in a hotel for months. But she never complains. April sees a blessing in every little thing. Maybe because she lives by a famous quote at the beginning of Marianne Williamson’s book A Return to Love:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Something she lives by as she smiled at her boys Thanksgiving Day over those piles of boxes. She knows in her heart her family has a brighter future in Fort Worth.