- Associated Press - Sunday, September 27, 2015

SABINE PASS, Texas (AP) - Hurricane Rita damaged Tina McCray’s Sabine Pass home, and Hurricane Ike three years later swamped what was refurbished. Now, she doesn’t carry flood or wind insurance on the pre-manufactured replacement home given to her by the federal government.

She only insures its contents, because she’s done rebuilding in the coastal Jefferson County town.

“It’s enough to start over somewhere else,” said McCray, a bartender at Boot Scootin’ and Boogie, one of the few businesses that remain in the deflated town 20 minutes south of Port Arthur.

A nearly 50-year gap between major hurricanes hitting Sabine Pass, Rita seduced residents into the comfort of an isolated area inhabited for generations by the same families. A high-performing school district helped. Population ticked upward.

Rita and Ike shattered the idyllic scene. Ten years after the first storm, some residents clutch at the pieces that remain, hoping time will restore the town to its modern heyday. Some, like McCray, stayed because they were given a FEMA home.

Many have fled, unable to afford to build replacement homes in line with more costly flood-protection codes or unable to stomach the underscored vulnerability of an unprotected town on the Gulf of Mexico.

Population in the Sabine Pass zip code fell by 44 percent from 2000 to 2013, according to Census figures and the bureau’s American Community Survey estimates. Housing fell by 53 percent.

As of two years ago, 373 people were living in 146 homes south of Keith Lake, down from 661 people in 331 homes in 2000. More than three out of four of those 146 dwellings were built after the year 2000, according to the Census Bureau.

Two century-old homes known for their architectural quirks, history and beauty were torn down this summer after sitting vacant since Ike. In their place, if anything, will be homes on stilts.

“You’d get lost in this town (after the hurricanes),” Dixie Jennings, a lifelong Sabine Pass resident, told the Beaumont Enterprise (bit.ly/1KMI6ch). “We didn’t go by street names. We went by ‘the pink house on the corner.’ . It changed your whole way of life, and we had to fight for everything we got.”

Founded as early as 1836 as Sabine City, the site secured a railroad tie-in and the county’s first sawmill, appearing to be on the cusp of becoming a major Gulf Coast port, according to the Texas State Historical Association. Hurricanes in 1886, 1900 and 1915 beat up the city, and Arthur Stillwell, unable to strike land deals with the Sabine-holding Kountze brothers, went on to develop Port Arthur, the TSHA says. As Sabine stalled, the Spindletop discovery uncorked rapid development in the neighboring ports and municipalities.

Despite falling short of its initial promise, Sabine Pass served for generations as home to families who subsided on a tight-knit, neighborly, nostalgic culture born in part from that unrealized potential.

“Where once, as the gem of the gulf coast, she held high promise of commercial supremacy, Sabine Pass today is but a graveyard of hopes, a repository of legend,” reads a May 25, 1935 article in The Beaumont Journal.

Eighty years later, hope, optimism and a rich school district are all that keep it together. Residents no longer aspire for commercial supremacy, but to reclaim a semblance of what was abruptly lost in the three-year span that began with Hurricane Rita.

“It’s been 10 years and there are still things that aren’t on an even keel,” said Kristi Heid, superintendent of the Sabine Pass Independent School District. “I’d go back in a heartbeat to that time.”

When Heid was growing up, tropical weather threats meant little more to her than mini-vacations.

“It was really cool as a kid to get to evacuate. We would spend a night or two at a hotel, swimming in the hotel swimming pool,” she remembered. “That’s how I grew up. We always came back.”

For Rita, Heid evacuated to Jasper. As the powerful storm approached less than a month after Hurricane Katrina, it sent people throughout the region scurrying for shelter. She was in traffic for 12 hours, the first indication this would be an entirely different experience.

“We were at a hotel in Jasper when we heard it was a direct hit,” Heid said. “We knew we were in trouble. I was allowed back in as a first responder. … It was not like anything I knew in my lifetime.”

Scottie Ray spent 10 days living in a tent in her yard after Rita. Mosquitoes swarmed so thickly that Ray would zip the tent shut and then spray bug killer, she said. She covered her face to avoid inhaling the spray.

Ray later moved her family into one of the many FEMA travel trailers delivered to the coast, a cramped stand-in while her home was gutted and refurbished.

Although conditions were brutal, Sabine Pass residents proved their resiliency. Time and hard work healed the wounds, as Rita spared much of the change that Ike hastened three years later.

Because many homes were not damaged enough to require ground-up rebuilds, homeowners were able to skate around new flood-protection codes, saving money and their homes’ histories.

The town also bound together. Tammie Blood served free breakfast, lunch and dinner from her diner every day for several weeks, she said. The Salvation Army donated can goods to her, and the Dick Dowling Lions Club contributed meat.

“Cars would be lined up for miles,” she said.

In the spring of 2006, school children christened a new auditorium built by ABC’s “Extreme Makeover” by reciting monologues about what the hurricane meant to them, an event captured on national television. They cried, reckoned with disaster and tried to move on.

Two and a half years later, Hurricane Ike destroyed the auditorium and wiped out nearly every home in the town.

Homes that didn’t require a complete rebuild after Rita now did, triggering expensive building codes that some residents left home to avoid, locals said.

“Rita devastated us, and Ike finished it off,” said Rodney Lee, a 59-year-old lifelong resident considered the town’s historian.

Time can disguise Sabine Pass’ geographical vulnerability, but it does not aid it.

Jefferson County cities northwest of Sabine have some form of surge protection - marsh, a seawall and Sabine Pass itself - but no barrier is worth the money it would cost to protect the town, Lee said.

“They’d have to build a 30-foot seawall around this place,” Lee said, noting that the highest ground is 8 feet above sea level.

Most sobering in the post-hurricane reality is the exodus of young adults, Blood said. They are starting lives elsewhere. Some, like Lee’s two children who live elsewhere in Southeast Texas, don’t plan to return.

“We miss the young people,” Blood said.

Industry dots the horizon. On the Louisiana side of Sabine Pass, Cheniere Energy is nearing completion on a multi-billion dollar facility to export natural gas. Sempra Energy and ExxonMobil are planning similar projects north of the pass on Texas Highway 87.

Billed as boons for Jefferson County construction workers, skilled laborers and government coffers, the projects will have little impact on Sabine Pass, Lee said. Development on the Texas side will help the school district’s tax base, but Sabine Pass ISD is a rich district that already is forced to pay some of its property tax revenue to the state as part of the so-called “Robin Hood” law.

“It doesn’t help us down here,” Lee said. “There are no businesses down here for them to help support.”

Underneath its patched landscape is a symbol of pride: a high-performing school district. Out-of-town students who commute to the school have boosted enrollment to a level higher than the town’s total population.

“Even though a family may not live here, they’ll request to get their kids in this school,” Heid said. “That is a draw.”

The district has a strong industrial tax base, a healthy fund balance and small class sizes. The district enrolled 381 students in 2014 and had a district-wide student-to-teacher ratio of 12.4.

All 28 students in its 2013 graduating class finished high school in four years, according to the Texas Education Agency, and Sabine Pass ISD has won the state’s academic meet championship four years in a row.

Heid, for one, sees positivity in every new home, in each returning resident, in any glimmer that the worst has passed. She said a small number of people who have recently started to move back is a sign of potential.

The post-storm exodus was driven partly by the cost of complying with building codes, but also by spikes in concrete and elevation costs to build stronger and higher, Heid said. For people who initially moved away, the prices may be more palatable now, she reasoned.

Defeated many times over in Sabine Pass, hope persists, latching on to every fleeting victory even as reality shows no capacity for significant change. As long as the seas remain settled, comfort for the families who have spent generations in the community seems attainable.

“It’s bouncing back in a way that I didn’t think it would,” Heid said nearly seven years after the second storm. “The community grows stronger every day. By no means did Hurricane Ike and Hurricane Rita win.”


Information from: The Beaumont Enterprise, https://beaumontenterprise.com

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