Operations returning to normal
Effects of Hurricane Rita still felt one month after
|CO III Clint Pickard checks in a visitor to the Gist State Jail in Beaumont where the gatehouse still showed the effects of Hurricane Rita a month after the storm.
Photo by David Nunnelee
She’s long gone, but scores of TDCJ employees stationed in Southeast Texas will forever remember Hurricane Rita as a harrowing, heartbreaking, and humbling storm.
“Very humbling, very humbling,” said Greg Dawson, senior warden at the Lewis Unit in Woodville. “In this position, you always want to feel like you’re in control. Well, you’re not in control. You’re at the mercy of whatever happens. So in that sense, it’s humbling.”
A month after Rita came ashore in late September, operations were getting back to normal at Lewis and at other TDCJ prison and parole facilities in the southeastern portion of the state. The outer perimeter fence felled by the storm at the Stiles Unit in Beaumont was back up and a portion of the roof torn from a housing dormitory was being replaced. Across the road from Stiles, the LeBlanc Unit was up and running much like before the storm. A leaning flagpole and paint pitted by windblown sand were the most visible reminders of Rita.
“It’s not as pretty as it was,” LeBlanc Senior Warden J.W. Mossbarger said about the unit then. “We had some roof damage and a lot of the things we had painted, like the archway, basically got sandblasted.”
The neighboring Gist State Jail still showed the deepest scars a month after the storm. Layers of plastic sheeting covered a large portion of the administration building where the roof had once been, and two empty dormitories heavily damaged in the Category 3 hurricane awaited repairs. Still, the staff was happy to be back on familiar ground after having been evacuated to the storm-sturdy Stiles Unit prior to Rita’s landfall.
“We’re glad to be home,” said Gist Senior Warden Reginald Goings. “The employees have been eager to come back. They’re more accustomed to being here.”
Goings estimated that the unit was about 60 percent operational a month after Rita. The state jail was being repopulated gradually and administrative staff members were able to find offices in the education building to work out of while the administration building awaited repair.
“Our officer turnout room is now our mailroom and our inmate records department,” said Gist Assistant Warden Dawn Williamson. “I’ve got the parole office as my office.”
Dirk Lorimer, senior warden at the Goodman Transfer Facility in Jasper, slept on a cot inside a walk-in closet off his office for a week following the storm that left his home near Beaumont significantly damaged. Although Rita’s whipping winds caused little structural damage at Goodman, the hurricane left the facility without power, running water or sewer for seven days.
“We were prepared,” Lorimer said. “We had everything locked down and tied down. We were just waiting. And when it hit, the city of Japer lost power so we had no running water or sewage. And then the phone lines went down. But we made it through it. That’s the important thing.”
The Stiles Unit operated off generators for two weeks after the storm, and went without sewer for five days.
“The happiest day was when the sewer came back up,” said Stiles Senior Warden Joe Smith. “You can run a prison without water and electricity, but it’s hard to manage without sewer.”
Still, Smith said the Emergency Command Center in Huntsville provided the unit with all the food, water, and fuel it needed while the city of Beaumont was without power.
“I don’t know how I would have been able to go without them,” he said. “Everything I needed, all I would have to do would be to make one phone call, tell them what I needed, and I wouldn’t have to worry about it. I never wanted for anything. They did a great job.”
Warden Lorimer said that he, too, got what he needed when he needed it.
“The command center in Huntsville did an excellent job filling our needs,” he said. “They were in constant contact with us, and I was impressed by how quickly our supplies got here.”
Thirty miles to the west, four hours of whistling winds and rain left the Lewis Unit in Woodville shaken but secure. Within days, a section of roof torn away from a dormitory was repaired and a collapsed wall was back up. Warden Dawson said it was important to him to have the damage repaired quickly.
“I wanted every remnant of that storm gone as soon as possible,” he said. “It was very important for the morale of the staff because the only normalcy they saw was when they came here. They sure didn’t have normalcy at home.”
Dawson said he still had nine employees who had no permanent place to live a month after Rita damaged or destroyed their homes. It was the same story at units and parole offices throughout the region.
“We still have some staff with issues because of their homes being damaged, but beyond that, we’re up and operational,” said Parole Division Director Bryan Collier on the one-month anniversary of the storm’s landfall.
At one point in the days following Rita, more than 350 displaced TDCJ employees - 75 with family members - from the affected area were staying in a shelter set up in an empty Texas Youth Commission facility adjacent to the three TDCJ units in Beaumont. Initially, a number of employees had been made virtual prisoners of the storm because they either couldn’t get home from their duty posts or no longer had a place to go back to that was livable.
“The unit came out good,” Warden Lorimer said at Goodman. “Some of the staff didn’t fare so well. Rita is gone, but she’s still here, too. Everybody had some damage.”
Forty-six employees from the LeBlanc Unit weren’t able to return home for four days.
“They were pretty much pushed as far as they could go,” said Warden Mossbarger. “A lot of them broke, but they came right back.”
Indeed, TDCJ administrators in the storm-struck area all praised the resiliency and devotion to duty demonstrated by their employees during and after the storm.
“You learn that you have employees that step up to the plate and do whatever you ask of them,” said Warden Smith at Stiles. “We bent them, we broke them, we molded them back together, and they were, truly, some of the best staff that I could ever ask for.”
“You find when something like this happens that individuals you didn’t realize had the dedication and commitment to the agency do have it,” said Gist Assistant Warden Dawn Williamson. “They really come through for you in the long run. I was just real proud of them. They’re my heroes.”
“I’m so proud of the staff here,” Warden Dawson added enthusiastically. “Not only were they dealing with the issues here, but they were also dealing with the fact that their families were at home. And in some cases, they had no contact with their families. Everyday is getting better, but it’s not over yet.”
Because gasoline was in short supply in the days immediately following the storm, Dawson arranged for the local school district to have volunteer drivers bus his employees to and from work, a shuttle service that ran for two weeks. Dawson and the wardens at the other affected units also arranged for the American Red Cross and representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to come to the units to provide their employees with assistance since many were unable to leave their posts. Post-trauma counseling was also made available to all employees.
“I believe their spirits are back up,” Smith said about his staff in late October. “Things are going close to normal for them now, and I think everybody is wanting to block that two-week period out their mind. There’s very little conversation about it.”
“Actually, it turned out to be a pretty good team-building experience,” Dawson said. “It brought everybody together. We all went through a common struggle. In that situation, whether you’re the warden or you’re a clerk, it makes no difference. Everybody went through the same struggle and we bonded in it.”
“The people that went through it bonded, and I don’t think anybody will ever be able to break that bond,” added Williamson. “They were there together.”
Still, all the TDCJ employees who weathered Rita say one hurricane is enough.
“It’s probably the most challenging thing I’ve dealt with in my career,” said Warden Mossbarger. “I’ve been through some storms and I’ve been through some evacuations, but I’ve never been involved in anything like this. It definitely pushed not only myself, but also my staff. But it showed me that anything you want to do, you can do. You’ve got to be pushed. And we got pushed.”
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