Byron Broussard knew what he would see when he joined others in a Denton crew that went to the Texas Gulf Coast after Hurricane Harvey.
“I’m a Katrina person and it was nothing that I wasn’t expecting,” Broussard said. “You can’t fight water.”
Now a Texan, Broussard evacuated Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Broussard was among seven city of Denton employees who helped repair water and sewer systems in Refugio, Lake Jackson and Brazoria earlier this month.
Travel was difficult. The workload was massive. The salt marsh mosquitoes were relentless, and big.
“They looked prehistoric to me,” said fellow crew member David C. Warren Sr.
But there was also plenty of pizza and homemade tacos and barbecue; places to sleep and shower indoors; and a lot of grateful people, according to Broussard, Warren and the other crew members, Rivers Earls Jr., Glen Harrison, Brian Meadows and Kyle Hubbert.
City of Denton crews have helped other communities after natural disasters before. The city has mutual aid agreements with a number of agencies. The city gets reimbursed for time and labor, and crews from other cities will help Denton, if needed.
Linemen with Denton Municipal Electric have often hit the road to help re-power cities after ice storms, tornadoes and other major weather events. One crew went to Long Island in New York after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Streets crews have been dispatched to East Texas to help clear roads after a tornado.
But Drew Huffman, a wastewater collection manager and crew chief for this latest effort, said he believed this was the first time Denton ever sent an experienced crew from the city’s water and wastewater departments to a disaster zone.
The work may not be as dramatic as watching first responders pluck people from rising and rushing waters. But crippled public infrastructure can certainly lead to life-and-death situations. Eight residents died in a Florida nursing home this week after Hurricane Irma knocked out power, leaving the residents without adequate air conditioning.
Crew members left Denton with all the gear and supplies they thought they would need to do the job, Huffman said. They arrived in Refugio late on Friday, Sept. 1, where they teamed up with another crew from the city of Carrollton.
Refugio — population 2,900 — is about 50 miles inland from Corpus Christi, but the winds from Harvey were still hurricane strength when the storm hit.
The crew had repaired several leaks in the city’s water system on Saturday, Sept. 2, when they got a call that the city of Lake Jackson needed the help Denton's team specialized in.
They left the Carrollton team to finish up repairs in Refugio and arrived at Lake Jackson at about 1 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 3. Lake Jackson (population 27,000) is about 50 miles south of Houston and about 10 miles inland.
The rise of both the Brazos River and Oyster Creek brought catastrophic flooding to Lake Jackson.
“We crossed the Brazos [later] on the way to Brazoria and it was every bit of 10 miles wide,” Huffman said.
The team got up at dawn to relieve the local public works crew who, like the local crew in Refugio, had been working almost nonstop and needed rest and to take care of their own family needs, Huffman said.
The crew cleared a drainage channel to relieve floodwaters and then helped repair a sewer main. Before the end of the day, they cleared two other sewer mains that were blocked.
On Labor Day, they were manning large water pumps that were moving floodwaters into the Brazos and its tributaries. Then, they got a call about sewer problems affecting other areas of town.
They fixed the lift stations. They sandbagged around manholes to help keep floodwaters from getting into the city’s sewer system.
By Tuesday, Sept. 5, the team was in Brazoria, where the sewer plant had been flooded by the San Bernard River.
Even though Brazoria (population 3,100) is only about 10 miles west of Lake Jackson, it took the crew an hour to get there because so many roads were flooded.
“Brazoria needed a lot a help,” Warren said. “But the work we do, you can’t do underwater.”
Brazoria residents couldn’t use their plumbing. Another crew had delivered portable toilets, setting one on every street corner.
“There were a lot,” Warren said.
The Denton crew could only reach the sewer plant by boat. They began pumping out the floodwaters. They serviced and re-oiled the three pumps that are the heart of the plant.
The Denton crew and other people from the Trinity River Authority assessed the damage. The electrical operations room suffered minimal damage. They believed the pumps could be restored, although the city ordered new pumps, just in case.
But the Denton crew had to leave before the floodwaters receded enough for them to restart the plant.
“As far as I know, they were getting it back on track,” Huffman said.
A long way back
The crew was part of the state’s public works response team, a recent disaster response strategy of the Texas Department of Emergency Management, Huffman said.
Gov. Greg Abbott estimated that Harvey may have caused as much as $180 billion in damage along the Texas Gulf Coast. Recovery is expected to take years to complete. Some of that recovery includes replacing or repairing cars, trucks, homes and businesses. But another major part of that recovery includes fixing public infrastructure: roads and bridges, drainage and sewer systems and public water supplies.
When the Denton crew was in the area, 813 of 2,469 sewer systems in the area weren't operating, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. State and federal officials still were trying to reach all of the 4,500 public water suppliers in the area to find out whether they were operational. At the time, 166 of the water suppliers had boil-water notices and 50 were shut down.
Despite the massive response, not all of the systems are working yet. As of this past Thursday, a total of 31 sewer treatment plants were still inoperable, according to state officials. Among all the public water suppliers in the disaster area, 77 still had boil-water notices and 19 remained shut down as of Thursday.
The Denton team saw some of the vulnerabilities that may be addressed as part of the state’s plan for long-term recovery.
Refugio’s water system, for example, is delivered by old asbestos concrete pipes. (Huffman said the Denton team was briefed, so they could repair the pipes without risking exposure to the dust.) Refugio crews tried to keep the water system going during the hurricane, but once the power went out, the system lost pressure, triggering the leaks.
Lake Jackson’s lift stations already do yeoman's work moving sewage because of the area’s flat terrain, making them easily overwhelmed by flooding rains.
Brazoria’s sewer plant is on a patch of high ground, but it became an island in the storm.
The governor's office rolled out a public infrastructure recovery plan that calls for industry professionals and research experts to review all the assessments and other available data gathered from the areas hit by Harvey. The team is expected to identify and recommend reconstruction projects and other approaches to public works that focus on resiliency and sustainability in the face of future catastrophic weather.
“The bottom line is that we cannot just rebuild what was damaged; we must ‘future-proof’ what is built new to mitigate future problems to the greatest extent possible,” the plan reads.
The governor's office did not respond to a call and email with questions about the recovery, including how many other cities sent public works teams to the area.
The Denton team members noticed that everyone they met on the coast was in good spirits and ready to rebuild, particularly in hard-hit Brazoria.
“We learned a lot from Katrina,” Broussard said, although he has a hard time understanding people who don't heed evacuation warnings because they're trying to save the things they own.
The most important thing Hurricane Katrina may have taught Gulf Coast residents is the value of resilience, Warren said.
“People will go back and people will fix it and make it better,” Warren said. “That’s a good thing about America. We’ve got a lot of things that are happening nowadays and it just seems to keep coming and coming and coming.”
Storm victims should know they aren’t alone, Harrison added.
“There are a lot of people out there that want to help,” he said.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881.
FEATURED PHOTO: A city of Denton crew confronted flooded waters near the city of Brazoria's wastewater treatment plant. Crew members had to approach the plant by boat in order to make repairs.
Courtesy photo/City of Denton