It’s been months since Hurricane Harvey unleashed its wrath on the Texas Gulf Coast. The water has receded, but communities in southeast Texas are still picking up the pieces. For many, that means the first months of 2018 will be spent rebuilding houses – and lives – disrupted by the storm. There’s a lot of work left to be done, but in the new year, hurricane recovery means both looking back and moving forward.
Nine-year-old Abigail Shannon and seven-year-old Isaiah left their home in Port Arthur by boat. When the flood waters came into their house, they got out with only the bare essentials.
“Clothes. Yeah, you’ve got to bring clothes. I thought about Lucky, that’s our dog. It was scary,” they say.
With the immediacy of evacuation, Abigail and Isaiah’s mom, Brandy says she only brought toothbrushes and shoes. Things with sentimental value didn’t cross her mind.
“You’re in the mode of what are we going to need for the next few days not realizing that it’s going to be the next few months,” Brandy says.
The Shannons’ house was unlivable until the holidays – like many in the Golden Triangle. Dilapidated dressers and waterlogged mattresses still sit outside as people gut their houses and start rebuilding. It’s not easy to see your belongings on the curb, but for families in recovery mode, there’s one flood casualty that’s especially challenging: family photographs.
“Discussed the pictures and really felt like we were up high and they were in good substantial Rubbermaid tubs and that they would be fine. And they weren’t,” says Marlene Ravey, who lives on the Gulf Coast with her husband Eldridge.
They are used to running from tropical storms. They evacuated during Hurricanes Ike and Rita, and later relocated to higher ground in Beaumont. Every time they evacuated, Ravey brought family photographs with her. But Harvey caught her off guard, and she wasn’t the only one.
“This is the first time we’ve had a flood like this and it was a whole different ball game,” says Dale Jackson, the fire chief and emergency management coordinator for the City of Groves.
Jackson helped evacuate over 200 residents, about one third of the city. As flood waters overwhelmed the city, baby books and photo albums didn’t stand a chance. For Ravey, that’s been a tough pill to swallow.
“Things are things, it’s true. But things that have emotion attached to them, things that are your history those are important, they really are. They document lives that you’ve loved, and you’ve lost,” Ravey says.
The Raveys have spent months trying to salvage their old family photographs.
“Some of the are stuck together like this, after they dry. But most of them are just a mess,” Ravey’s daughter Jennifer says.
The restoration process is a lot like hurricane recovery in general: slow and laborious. That’s something Carrie Graham realized after hearing from family members and friends who lost photos in the floods.
“I think there was an immediate consciousness of ‘Oh my goodness, where have my memories gone?’” Graham says.
Graham had an idea she thought might help. In early December, she organized a portrait sessions at the First Baptist Church in Groves for people who lost family pictures in the floods.
During the storm, The First Baptist Church became one of the main shelters for the Shannon family and other evacuees. It provided people with basic needs like clean water and a dry pair socks. Now, Graham hopes using the space to create new memories through photographs can be part of a longer term recovery process.
“You know we’re still recovering. It’s going to be a many year process to get all these folks back where they were before the storm came,” says Fire Chief Dale Jackson.
He says that task is ongoing for the Golden Triangle, an area that’s seen five major storms in the past 15 years. For families that have lost everything, recovery is less about returning to how life was before Harvey than it is appreciating the progress that’s been made after the storm. The Shannons moved back into their house on Thanksgiving day.
“The first time we stayed at our house was Thursday night. And I was just so excited,” Abigail Shannon says.
The Raveys are still staying with their daughter while they gather resources to rebuild. But Marlene Ravey says even though they lost some things to the storm, others remain constant.
“It won’t be the same, and sure there will be some sadness, but when you have family and there’s this kind of love between you, you can’t really be sad for long, you really can’t,” she says.
And the smiles in their new photographs prove that.