Father Mark Ameh, MSP - St. John the Evangelist, Port Arthur, Texas
“I sat down on the presider’s chair, but this time I was not presiding at any Eucharistic celebration. I was simply trying to save my life,” said Father Mark Thomas Ameh, MSP, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Port Arthur, describing his harrowing night trapped in his church during Harvey.
As Harvey approached the upper Texas coast, Father Mark assured his family in Nigeria that everything was fine even though it had been raining for days. But on the night of Aug. 29, Father Mark woke up from a fitful sleep and saw the water rising rapidly outside. Deciding it was time to go, he opened the rectory door only to let in a torrent of water along with a swimming snake. After killing the snake, Father Mark sloshed through the downpour to his car carrying the sacramental records and the Blessed Sacrament. But the water was too high for the car to get out.
So Father Mark spent what he called “an unending night” in the church, as waves of water hit the stained glass outside and floating church furniture was tossed around inside.
“For hours I sat there alone in church in the dead of the night as the rains kept pouring down outside. My fears grew higher as flood water began to enter the church from all corners and angles,” he said.
Father Mark found a dry spot on the pews in the raised choir section, but as the water rose he knew he had to move to an even higher location. He plodded slowly to the altar and spent the rest of that long night in the presider’s chair.
In the morning, from the cry room door he flagged down a boat by waving a white cloth. He waded through waist deep water to his rescue boat.
During that frightful night, Harvey inundated the city of Port Arthur with 26 inches of rain that devastated every building on the St. John campus and the entire El Vista neighborhood where most of the parishioners live. And in the days following the flooding, Father Mark learned his rescue experience was multiplied hundreds of times by his parishioners and the rest of Port Arthur.
Vivian Sneed – Sacred Heart-St. Mary Parish, Port Arthur, Texas
“Lord, I know you are going to help me,” prayed Vivian Sneed as she strapped on her life jacket and cautiously waded into the chest high water from Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey that was flooding her Port Arthur neighborhood.
Vivian’s two daughters had urged her to go to Houston to stay with them during the storm, but the 75-year-old member of Sacred Heart-St. Mary Parish didn’t see any sense in that. After all, Houston was already flooding and no evacuation order had been issued for Port Arthur.
If they couldn’t get her to leave, Vivian’s children were going to get their mother to do one thing: buy a life preserver since she didn’t know how to swim. She did purchase one, but joked about it. But on Aug. 29 as water poured in to her home, her life preserver was no laughing matter.
She waited alone for hours for a rescue boat, but none arrived. She prayed and realized that if she was going to make it she couldn’t just wait for the boats to come to her. She would have to get to the boats. Vivian put on the life vest and stepped into chest high water, trying to get to her truck. Though water was on its floorboards, the truck could still run. She slowly drove to the intersection of two main streets and found a high parking lot in front of a seafood store.
A helicopter circled overhead. Vivian waved a white cloth and flashed her truck lights. The chopper landed – a block away.
Vivian had no choice but to wade through the water.
“It was very frightening!” she said. “But having the life jacket helped me to feel safe and calmed me down so I could keep going.”
She was pulled up inside the helicopter (relieved she did not have to be hauled up in a basket!) and taken to a shelter.
Vivian’s parish is one of those that was affected by the flooding. Of the eight parishes in Port Arthur, six sustained damage. Water covered 90% of the area of Port Arthur.
The storm has not damped Vivian’s spirit. Though she has lost everything, she is thankful for family, friends, helpful strangers, her faith in God – and that life preserver!
Father Jim McClintock, St. Mary Parish, Fannett, Texas
Father Jim McClintock said the situation at St. Mary Parish in Fannett went from "I think we are going to be fine" to "Sir, we are here to evacuate you" in less than 10 minutes.
The pastor thought Harvey would pass by and “everything would be normal.” But by Aug. 27, the church’s land began to flood and the road out become impassable. On Aug. 29, Father Jim woke to the sounds of driving wind and rain. He stepped out of bed at the rectory and into ankle deep water. Water was pouring into all parish buildings and rising fast. Though the deluge of rain was adding floodwater moment by moment, a levee north of the church breached, sending even more floodwaters through the neighborhood. Rescuers were now going door to door.
Parishioners had alerted rescuers about the priest trapped in his church, and soon a military-style, high water rescue vehicle arrived. Father Jim had only a few minutes to secure the facilities, grab some clothes and the sacramental registers and then take the consecrated hosts from the tabernacle (or as Father Jim put it, “AKA Jesus”).
After his rescue, kind parishioners took in Father Jim and another family. For a few days, the priest said, his roommates were four adults, three teenagers, three dogs --- and Jesus.
Harvey deposited 2-3 feet of water in every building at St. Mary and Father Jim will be celebrating Mass at the nearby St. Martin de Porres Mission for months to come. His greatest concern is for parishioners in Fannett, Hamshire, Labelle and Cheek who have lost everything.
Jay White, St. Jude Thaddeus Parish, Beaumont, Texas
“I’ve learned to never underestimate the power of prayer,” Jay White, a parishioner of St. Jude Thaddeus Parish in Beaumont, said. “Sometimes I’ll be feeling low and I’ll feel a sudden rush uplift me. That’s prayer working. Before, when people said my prayers for them have helped, I never really knew what they meant.”
Home for Jay and Dennis White and their teenage grandson is now a small apartment on the campus of Lamar Institute of Technology where Dennis is employed – but they are grateful to have it. Their family home has been in the City of Bevil Oaks, a small community west of Beaumont, for 40 years, and Jay and her husband Dennis have been through a few storms. The last serious flood was in 1994, and since their house was not in a flood zone, it had no flood insurance. The Whites were able to get an SBA loan at that time to make the needed repairs.
Things were fine for more than 20 years until Aug. 29 when then-Tropical Storm Harvey dropped a deluge on Southeast Texas. Bevil Oaks and Jay’s home were pounded by the multiple days of rain. The flooding was compounded when the nearby Pine Island Bayou overflowed its banks. Jay’s home took in 7 to 8 feet of water.
Now the Whites are playing a waiting game as the City of Bevil Oaks and FEMA decide if they will require all homes in the city be raised to a minimum elevation of 30 feet before any rebuilding can be done. Most of the city has a current elevation of 26 feet. Jay says raising a foundation even 3 or 4 feet could cost up to $200,000.
Jay says her family can’t afford that, and they can’t afford to demolish the house either because they still owe the bank. A buyout from FEMA for pennies on the dollar wouldn’t pay off the mortgage. In addition owing the mortgage, the Whites are still repaying the loan for repairs from the ’94 flood.
So for now the Whites are just waiting for word from the government about what to do. Though occasionally, she gets discouraged, most of the time Jay is hopeful because of the help she’s received from fellow parishioners, friends and even strangers who have cooked meals, helped clean up the mess and prayed.
The deluge of rain that affected Jay’s home also damaged her parish’s family life center. The flooding from both the rain and the overflow of the bayou contributed to the devastation in other nearby neighborhoods and also to the catastrophic damage at Holy Family Retreat Center where water reached near the top of every building. The retreat center has been a place of prayer and solace for thousands of Southeast Texans – both Catholic and non-Catholic for decades.
Please consider making a gift to support rebuilding efforts in the Diocese of Beaumont as well as in Catholic dioceses decimated by hurricanes in the Caribbean. Your gift will be matched dollar for dollar by a few of our generous longtime donors. Thank you for your generosity and prayers.