When Hurricane Harvey smashed into Texas in late August, the scenario that unfolded was beyond what almost everyone expected.
The hurricane brought days of rainfall to Southeast Texas, particularly Houston, triggering devastating flooding.
Washington County escaped the brunt of the flooding, but Harvey left its imprint on the county nonetheless.
It was selected the No. 1 local news story for 2017.
On Aug. 24, Washington County officials advised residents to prepare for heavy rainfall and the possibility of power outages as Hurricane Harvey lumbered toward the Texas coast.
The most serious threat to Washington County, said Bryan Ruemke of the county’s Office of Emergency management, was from heavy rains.
“Threats to our county are heavy rainfall that could exceed 10 inches with isolated heavier amounts,” Ruemke said. “The rain should occur over several days but some areas may experience heavy downpours. This could cause flooding of roads.
“Tropical storm winds are also a threat for our area.”
Ruemke said city and county departments were preparing for the storm, with some departments staging equipment in different parts of the county.
“Residents should prepare for the storm by making sure you have enough supplies for at least five days,” he said. “This should include prescription medications, food, water and personal items, spare batteries for your flashlight as well as a battery power radio or TV.
“Residents should also fill their vehicle with fuel before the storm arrives.”
Harvey arrived the night of Aug. 25 as a category 4 hurricane.
Harvey brought between 20-25 inches of rainfall locally, and some forecasters said the storm could even meander back into the Gulf of Mexico and strengthen.
Randy Wells, executive director of Faith Mission, the local volunteer services coordinator during disasters, said Washington County was considered a “pass-through” city, with evacuees urged to find shelter in larger cities.
Washington County Judge John Brieden issued a emergency order declaring a local state of disaster.
The declaration, which activates the county’s emergency management planned, called Washington County “a passthrough county during evacuation,” which could trigger “a shortage of resources,” including fuel and food.
Brieden’s declaration said he had determined “that the conditions from Hurricane Harvey pose a significant threat to Washington County citizens.”
Local emergency management personnel said residents should secure lose items on their property, move livestock to higher ground, ensure pets had adequate food and water, and have supplies such as water, prescription medications and non-perishable food items on hand.
BEC spokesman Will Holford said the power provider began planning for Harvey well in advance of its arrival.
“During the past few days we have worked with our vendors to ensure we and they have the necessary equipment, such are poles, power lines, transformers and fuses, available to restore power during a widespread outage event,” said Holford. Crews were placed on 12-hour shirts and “will be dispatched to respond to outages as they occur,” said Holford.
Harvey was the fiercest to hit the U.S. in more than a decade, making landfall east-northeast of Corpus Christi as a category 4, with winds in excess of 130 mph.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency granted Gov. Greg Abbott’s request for a presidential disaster declaration.
Aside from persistent rains and gusts of high winds, Washington County weathered Hurricane Harvey with only minor damage and flooding.
The storm forced cancellation of a host of activities, with schools closed for several days.
Several drives to help victims of former-hurricane Harvey were kicked off locally.
Washington County Neighbors Helping Neighbors, with a goal of filling trailers with items needed by hurricane victims, was announced this morning.
The effort was a collaboration of the Washington County Ministerial Alliance, businesses, schools, first responders, local leaders and citizens.
“The goal is to fill a minimum of three trailers full of needy items such as clothes, food, diapers, blankets, pillows, hygiene, etc.,” said Wells.
The Brenham school district and local Girl Scouts hosted community donation drives.
The Texas National Guard after the storm passed used Brenham as a staging area for its Houston rescue efforts.
The Guard set up a refueling station at the Firemen’s Training Center here. It was also wereused as a rest area for soldiers who were on the front lines of rescue efforts.
Brenham continued to be a “pass-through” city with no shelters set up for refugees. That, said city officials, is at the request of state officials.
“Officials have received some feedback about not opening a shelter, but the community had been asked by various agencies of the state not to use our assets to house evacuees through a shelter,” said Wende Ragonis, the city’s director of Community Services.
The recovery process will be a long one, Ragonis added.
“We cannot stress enough that this is a long term recovery for so many of our neighbors, and they will need our help in many ways,” she said.
Washington County was buffeted on social media for not opening a shelter to house hurricane Harvey evacuees, a decision which county officials said wasn’t up to them.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there on social media,” said County Judge Brieden. “We keep hearing people saying ‘you’re being mean and nasty. You’re a pass-through (city) and are telling people to just go away.’”
That simply isn’t true, said Brieden. Washington County was told by state emergency operations officials to hold off on opening shelters because they wanted evacuees to move farther away from potential danger.
“They designated us as a pass-through,” he said. “They did not authorize us to open shelters. They wanted to move people along.
“They wanted to use us as a staging area for people (first responders) going into Houston. That is what our area is being used for.”
Major shelters for evacuees were set up in Austin and Dallas.
Brieden said state officials developed those plans after Hurricane Rita struck Texas in September 2005. More than 100 people died trying to evacuate from the Texas coast, including Houston.
Traffic was backed up for miles, including major highways in Washington County.
“It’s their plan that they developed after Hurricane Rita,” Brieden said. “They said ‘here’s what we want you to do,’ and that’s what we’re doing.
“But some people are getting the wrong impression of our community. Somebody sees the signs (message boards were set up on U.S. 290 advising people that there were no shelters in Brenham) and they put out on social media something that says Brenham is an unfriendly place.
“That’s total misinformation. Somebody gets half a story and somebody else runs with it.”
Brieden said hundreds of evacuees were staying here, but not in any shelters. He estimated as many as 450 people who evacuated from areas like Port Aransas and Port Lavaca fled here before Harvey struck in the early morning hours.
“We’ve got folks here,” he said. “Some of them are FEMA-related (Federal Emergency Management Agency). They handed them FEMA vouchers good for 30 days in a hotel.
In some cases, FEMA provided prepaid cards for evacuees to purchase items such as food. Others didn’t receive those cards or vouchers from the agency, said Brieden.
“There may be a handful of people who didn’t get those things,” he said. “But they showed up here, and we need to take care of them.
“We’re not telling people to go away, to hell with you. We’re just trying to follow protocol.”
Meanwhile, Washington County continued to do what it could to help victims of Harvey, donating tons of items in only a matter of days for Hurricane Harvey victims throughout southeast Texas.
The Washington County Neighbors Helping Neighbors effort was quickly organized. A collaboration of the Washington County Ministerial Alliance, businesses, schools, first responders, local leaders and citizens, it was able to fill four tractor-trailer rigs with items headed to those in need.
“The generosity of the community has been amazing,” said Faith Mission’s Wells, president of the ministerial alliance and executive director of Faith Mission, the county’s volunteer coordinator.
Wells said Brenham was somewhat of a “hub” for getting help to rural areas that are sometimes forgotten with the widespread flooding and devastation that hit Houston, the country’s fourth largest city.
One of the largest collection efforts was at Alton Elementary School, organized by Kaylee Roznovsky, a teacher at the school.
Roznovsky said the idea to organize what she thought would be a small drive came from a desire to do something for the flood victims.
“Honestly, I was just tired of watching the news and getting more and more depressed and anxious for the people around Brenham,” she said. “I just wanted to do something. I sent my principal Mr. (Michael) Ogg a message and asked if I could set up a trailer at Alton because my brother-in-law (Blake Brannon of Premier Metal Buyers) was willing to donate one for the cause.”
The idea also got the “blessing” from Brenham Superintendent Walter Jackson, and the collection effort began.
“We were in complete shock. The generosity of this community has been nothing short of amazing.”
The first trailer went to La Grange, which was badly in need of assistance.
Roznovsky she was stunned by the response.
“I just wanted one trailer at Alton filled by the end of the week,” she said. “We joined forces with Randy Wells from Faith Mission and Neighbors Helping Neighbors.
“Stacey Walters and I have worked very closely to coordinate the trailers’ donation needs, drop-off locations and drivers.
“Since Tuesday, we have sent four 53-foot trailers busting at the seams to La Grange, the second to Rockport, the third to New Caney ISD and the fourth to Dayton. We’re working on our fifth trailer in four days.”
Roznovsky said volunteers offered to truck 200 round bales of hay to Dayton to feed hungry animals there after learning of the Alton drive.
“Can you believe that? This community continues to bless people all over Texas,” she said.
Jackson called the effort “incredible.”
“Once again, this community has come through in a tremendous way by helping neighbors in need,” Jackson said. “We are proud of the generosity of the Brenham ISD and Washington County.
“We are one Brenham, and we are better and stronger together.”
Roznovsky said the collection effort has been a teaching tool for her class.
“My fourth graders have so enjoyed seeing everything that we have been able to do here in Brenham,” she said. “They want to adopt a classroom next.”
An initial call was received, with the National Guard asking if Faith Mission’s Cannery Kitchen could have 115 meals ready for pickup within 90 minutes.
Understanding the time constraints, National Guard officers, Cannery Kitchen staff and volunteers worked together to feed the 115 soldiers at two locations.
Organizers said the response was tremendous.
“I’m inspired by the incredible support of the community and generosity people give of their time,” said Jamie Ward, one of the volunteers. “When we all work together as a team, the strengths and gifts we have, are multiplied for good things to happen. We are very appreciative of Neighbors Helping Neighbors coordinating the efforts to connect those in need with those that can help.”
Brenham didn’t escape Harvey unscathed, however.
Another sinkhole forced closure of a Brenham street.
Public works director Dane Rau said the sinkhole was located at the Higgins Branch crossing on West Jefferson Street.
“City crews along with the engineer evaluated the sinkhole, and based on the size of the void under the roadway, West Jefferson at MLK has been shut down until further notice,” said Rau.
A similar sinkhole appeared at the Higgins Branch crossing on Burleson Street.
Heavy flooding in May 2016 had caused erosion at Higgins Branch at West Jefferson and Burleson streets, and the problem was compounded by heavy rains several weeks ago from Hurricane Harvey.
Sinkholes developed at both sites, causing the roads to be closed to traffic until repairs could be made.