The messages have been a little mixed over the past few days. Some say the storm response has been great. Some say Sealy and Austin County were well-prepared. Some say they got lucky this time but they’re terrified of what could happen if the area floods again. Some have been housed in shelters for weeks. And just about everyone knows someone who has suffered from the wrath of Harvey.
But the community agrees on one thing: The generosity of local residents – even those who suffered losses – was unprecedented.
“You have these types of warnings about what’s going to flood and heed the warnings, so that kept people safe,” said Sealy Fire Chief Eric Zapalac. “There have been a lot of people helping us help the community … Emergency here has pretty much stabilized. We’re in the recovery phase.”
Sealy Police Lt. Chris Hudson said drained local ponds and the fact that the rain was spread out over a period of days helped the area from suffering widespread destruction.
“Each department throughout the city prepared ahead of time and had a game plan, and I think that’s what kept things from going bad,” Hudson said.
County Judge Tim Lapham announced Monday that Austin County was added into the federal disaster declaration granted by FEMA, allowing residents to become eligible for public assistance.
“While the road to recovery is a difficult one, Texas remains committed to helping the victims as long as it may take,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a press release. “I am pleased with the work of our federal partners to help Texans get critical resources to those in need. Rebuilding after a disaster is no small feat, but I have no doubt we will recover stronger than ever before.”
As of Friday afternoon, the shelter at Sealy’s Knights of Columbus Hall had dwindled to about 50 evacuees, and donations continued to pour in.
“We’ll stay open as long as the Red Cross tells us we need to be open, which we expect will be several more days,” said Daniel Cano, who was operating the shelter with volunteers. “We have a chaplain who is coming in and talking to people, a rotation of nurses and lots of volunteers, so everything is going pretty well.”
Red Cross volunteer Paul Dronka said the community was “truly blessed” with food, clothing, supplies and even entertainment. Local merchants, high school coaches, nurses and musicians have stopped by to lend a hand or provide entertainment as a welcome distraction to the situation.
“We have lists of volunteers waiting to be called to help,” Dronka said. “We are truly blessed – the outpouring of love and charity has been inspirational.”
Sealy ISD Superintendent Sheryl Moore said she was pleased to see “a small army” of people working together to help those in need.
“In an emergency, everyone contributes what they can, and Sealy ISD offered what we had; buses, showers, food, parking areas, willing workers,” Moore said. “It's how we come together to help others at times like this that defines us.”
Precinct 1 Commissioner Mark Lamp cautioned residents during an Aug. 31 Commissioners Court meeting to continue taking heed of warning signs and road closures, even though it appears the area is in the clear.
“We put out ‘road closed’ signs and people are throwing them in the ditches,” Lamp said. “Unit we pull them down, they need to stay in place. When y’all take those signs away it costs the county money. We’re putting them there for your protection.”
Austin County Sheriff Jack Brandes said he has surveyed the county via aircraft and while flooding conditions are still severe, there is no immediate danger to those in the area.
“People seem to be more educated and aware of what’s going on and have been very cooperative,” Brandes said. “All the roads that are flooded are the ones that have that happen every time there’s a flood.”
Brandes pointed to the preparation of emergency crews before the storm hit as a key piece to why the loss of life hasn’t been as bad as it could have been. He especially applauded the efforts of Austin County Emergency Management Coordinator Ray Chislett and local fire departments.
The Sheriff’s Department will continue to monitor the water levels throughout the county, particularly the areas that have been evacuated. Brandes said those areas are a priority to ensure no one is looting the homes or “tampering [with] anything.”
Brandes also said that those who evacuated should be careful of potential wildlife dangers such as snakes when returning to their homes and should call county resource officials with any inquiries.