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'We lost everything': East Texas residents confront their future after flooding

LIVINGSTON, Texas — Clinton Jones looked across the emergency shelter Friday. His children were going stir crazy. His wife, Samantha, and mother-in-law, Lee Farrell, were making the best of the cots and blankets they received from the Red Cross.

The 27-year-old’s family was one of thousands who fled their Southeast Texas homes as heavy rains saturated land in multiple counties and filled lakes and streams. An unknown total of homes, businesses and other property has been damaged this week by unrelenting storms stretching across Polk, Montgomery, Harris and other counties.

Thunderstorms will wrack the region throughout Saturday, and showers are likely on Sunday, according to the National Weather Service. Conditions along the Trinity River, which runs through Polk County, have become too dangerous for first responders to access, according to Polk County Emergency Management. Flooding has begun to encroach on subdivisions surrounding the lake to the East and West, evacuation crews began making their final calls for people seeking assistance.

Jones’ family home sat to the south of Lake Livingston, in the river bottoms of Coldspring, the San Jacinto County seat. It was overtaken by water shortly after the family left and Jones found safe harbor for their animals, his neighbors told him.

Much of the county was still underwater Friday as crews pulled stranded residents from their homes and roadways.

His family sat among dozens of evacuees who rested on cots and sat around plastic folding tables in Dunbar Gym, a makeshift shelter in an old school building. Many were elderly or infirm, few spoke English or were comfortable telling their stories.

[How the flooding in Southeast Texas got so dire]

Lunch was late, but it would be coming soon. Jones' 3-year-old son, the youngest, finally fell asleep, exhausted after a night of missing his bed and crying for his toys. They don’t know what to tell him about their home.

“We lost everything,” Jones said. “We lost everything we owned: beds, dressers, clothes, the kid’s toys.”

Thunder echoed through the shelter and the sounds of rain were amplified. It scared Jones’ other children, who, at that point, had already fled the storms twice. Their first refuge was a vacant home their friend owned. But the water quickly reached the doors and windows.

Jones was trying to hold it together, but worry lined his face and tears were near at hand as he spoke about their escape to Livingston.

He saved most of their important documents and salvaged some clothes so their kids would have something clean to wear. Warm in the shelter, the children remained barefoot. Their shoes were all lost.

Jones sat next to his son on a folding chair, Samantha stepped forward to offer him what comfort she could. He pressed his face into her stomach as she stroked his hair. Eventually his arms rose to wrap around her waist and they held each other.

Outside, the day grew sunny and the heat set in. But the damage of the last few days lingered and the rain will return before long.

Jones doesn’t know where his family will go when Monday comes, hopefully bringing sunny skies and clear weather.

For most of East Texas, the rains began in early April and they just kept coming. Until Sunday, many locals felt confident they could brave the weather. This is just what East Texas does in the spring, it’s usually rainy and wet, the mosquitos and cicadas begin to emerge and soon the fireflies will too. It’s nearly boating season and time to complain about the heat.

But on Sunday, the fear began to set in for those living below Lake Livingston as the Trinity River Authority announced it would increase the amount of water released at the dam. Polk County leadership recommended residents evacuate, but the situation was not dire yet.

On Monday the county declared a disaster. By that afternoon, orders came from local officials to evacuate. Few listened. And as the rains worsened Wednesday and Thursday, first responders were called in to pull people from the water.

Then, the city of Livingston, population 5,784, which sits east, not south, of the lake, flooded.

The small town is formed around a small valley, its slight bowl shape sent the water directly to the city’s center.

Trash, personal belongings, street signs and pieces of homes and businesses littered driveways and grassy lawns of the small town. Creek beds were washed out and businesses along Washington Avenue saw anywhere from six inches of water to three feet.

A small resale shop was destroyed, its windows busted out, shelves and display cases filled with mud or tossed into the parking lot out front. People with white trash bags picked through the rubbish and walked away with pairs of cowboy boots, jackets and other supplies.

Downtown Livingston traffic flowed Friday afternoon as small-business owners assessed the damage to their buildings and homeowners began to clean up their yards. Water slowly receded along U.S. Highway 59, but was closed in places between Livingston and Houston, about an hour and a half south.

Isis Martin, 56, was grateful her little sewing shop, I.M Sew Happy, was located a little ways up the hill, further from the city’s center. It still took on four to six inches of water in places but escaped the damage felt by her fellow business owners.

Martin’s home survived the storms as it sits on a hill. Water may run down the lawn, but it doesn’t stay there. She knew the biggest concern was her little sewing shop and spent hours on Thursday trying to get past police blockades to check on it. It took eight hours to do so.

“This is how I support my family,” Martin said. “I have an 18-year-old son at home who’s still in high school. I have a 10-year-old niece and a disabled brother, he’s a double amputee. We all rely on this business to run. So if it’s not running, we’re not surviving.”

Martin and her friend Keith Rippy, 67, spent Friday morning scraping mud from the floors, removing carpet and assessing damage. All of the outlets her sewing machines were plugged into had been submerged, and she was waiting to see what damage the machines took on.

Livingston is her home, and she wouldn’t give it up for the world. Even throughout all of this, her network of friends and other small business owners have stepped up for each other. She monitors their social media in case they need anything she can provide, and is confident they’re doing the same.

Martin prays she can reopen safely on Monday and resume work. She, and the town, are strong enough to withstand this storm.

We’ve got big things in store for you at The Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 5–7 in downtown Austin. Join us for three days of big, bold conversations about politics, public policy and the day’s news.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/05/03/east-texas-flood-survivors-cleanup/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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