Fagan Winn boarded a bus Monday afternoon at the Wilkerson-Greines Activity Center, ready to head back to Port Arthur for the first time since Harvey flooded his Southeast Texas home.
But he and his family don’t plan to be there long. They’ll stay long enough to gather up whatever belongings weren’t ruined in the massive storm that forced them out weeks ago, and then they’ll head back to Fort Worth.
“I’m just going back to get a few things because, really, to me there’s nothing in Port Arthur,” said Winn, 42, who has been staying at a temporary shelter here with his family for about two weeks. “I think it’s a better opportunity out here, a better opportunity for my children.
“So that’s why I’m coming back.”
Winn was among more than four dozen people leaving the shelter, which was scheduled to close by evening, to head home. About half, like him, plan to come back this way to restart their lives.
Members of 14 other households chose not to return home at all, instead permanently relocating here and staying at hotels until more permanent housing becomes available.
“I have a 2-year-old and I don’t want her in that kind of environment, Port Arthur ... a rundown town,” said Chaquita Flythe, 30, who chose to stay here with her daughter, Stormi.
She added that she was looking forward to sleeping in a hotel room — on a bed, rather than a cot — for the first time in weeks. Catholic Charities is paying for the lodging until Federal Emergency Management Agency vouchers arrive.
Shelter operations have been underway in Fort Worth for 22 days. At the peak, more than 3,650 evacuees stayed in local hotels; 247 others were in the Wilkerson-Greines shelter.
By Sunday night, just 47 stayed at the shelter, said Whitney Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the Harvey shelter operations in Fort Worth.
Smiles and tears
On Monday, dozens of evacuees piled their bags outside the temporary shelter, ready to load them onto two buses sent to take them home.
Some used cloth laundry bags or black garbage bags with their names taped on the side to carry the clothes and personal belongings received here.
Boxes of sack lunches were brought to the shelter so evacuees would have a meal on the approximately six-hour bus ride home.
Some still seemed in a bit of a daze, but that’s to be expected, Fire Chief Rudy Jackson recently told City Council members.
“We’re dealing with individuals who lost everything,” he said. “They’re really just up in the air about what their tomorrow will be.”
Since the storm, volunteers and city employees have worked together with the Red Cross, Catholic Charities and others, volunteering more than 11,000 hours for the shelter and those staying there, Rodriguez said.
“It was a safe haven,” Flythe said.
After weeks of getting to know one another, some volunteers and evacuees on Monday exchanged smiles and tearful hugs.
Mayor Betsy Price was among those who came out to say goodbye.
“I wanted to wish them well and let them know I hope they get back to a situation where they can get back into their homes,” Price said.
The city is expected to spend about $1 million on the emergency shelter, which should be reimbursed by the state.
That money pays for everything from salaries and overtime to necessities ranging from food to water to clothes for evacuees.
Martha Wiltz, Winn’s 54-year-old mother-in-law, was among those packed and ready to head to Port Arthur.
“I’m going back to see what’s left,” she said. “I’m happy to go back.”
But she said the plan is for her family to head back to Tarrant County as soon as Friday.
“It’s better here, the benefits, the jobs,” she said.
Flythe agreed, saying she’s looking forward to creating a new home here for herself and her daughter.
She has been unemployed since her mother died in May.
“I couldn’t find a job,” she said. “Then the hurricane happened.
“Now I want to make a change.”
But Lynn Broussard, 46, couldn’t wait to get home Monday.
He wanted to see how Port Arthur looks now that the city has dried out from floodwaters.
“I hope everything is being fixed up, re-established for everybody — everybody coming home and those already there,” he said.
Broussard was among those flown out of Port Arthur to safety.
“It wasn’t safe to be there,” Broussard said. “But I’m excited about being with family there again.”
More than 140 Hurricane Harvey evacuees, many from Port Arthur, are staying at Wilkerson-Greines Activity Center, with basic needs being met by the Red Cross and Fort Worth volunteers and citizens showing up to help any way they can. (Star-Telegram/Rodger Mallison)firstname.lastname@example.org