Sometimes History Hits Home

by Bob Schoone-Jongen.
Black and white photo of flattened wood building on the coast.

A building in Corpus Christi, Texas, destroyed by a storm surge in 1916. (Photo by National Weather Service.)

Sometimes history hits home. Hurricane Harvey is one of those hits.

Watching the devastation along the Gulf Coast, from Corpus Christi to Port Arthur, has been heart wrenching. Following the struggles of folks in the region, some of them my former students from back in Minnesota, puts real faces and real experiences into the picture. Thankfully, the people I know have emerged intact, at least physically.

There is a second raw nerve here: Just last year I spent a week in Corpus Christi. I walked along the waterfront; I had dinner on a barge anchored in the marina. I stayed in a motel in Robstown, where a house burned to the ground in the storm’s aftermath. I flew in and out of the airport the president used to make his stop in town just last week. These places are not just pictures on a television screen. They are three-dimensional images in my mind.

Five years back I visited a research library in Beaumont. Now the city has a severely limited water supply. I saw a reporter standing at an exit on I-10 situated within shouting distance of the hotel where I stayed. The documents I handled are likely still under water. If so, they will not be handled again, except on the way to a dumpster. The life story of someone I researched will be gone, at least the original manuscript version of it.

About one hundred years ago, this same Gulf Coast area endured other hurricanes of similar proportions. Just the other day I saw a weather map showing the paths of them, one that struck the Beaumont area in 1914 and the other which came ashore south of Corpus Christi in 1916. There are lessons in them.

The 1914 storm literally washed away a farming community. When it struck, the crops were in the fields, just days away from harvesting. The storm surge rolled more than 12 miles inland from the gulf, pouring salt water into the canals that fed the rice fields. When the sun finally reappeared, the crops were gone, the future of rice production destroyed. One hundred farm families left the area within days, never to return.  A few of the families held on to their land, if only for sentimental reasons. If they did, their reward came decades later when the land sprouted oil wells, instead of produce. Those wells fed the refineries in Beaumont and Port Arthur that produce 20% of the gasoline consumed in the United States today, and are currently out of production due to the flooding.

The 1916 storm destroyed a church, a resort hotel, farmsteads, and a railroad. The railroad tracks went for scrap. Since the local farmers could not afford to leave, they rebuilt their houses and barns. They also built a new church, with bricks made of mud mined from the bottom of Baffin Bay. That Thanksgiving, the parish priest organized a community celebration, starting a tradition that endures to this day. Since the oil companies concluded they had no use for the area, the future remains with small farms raising produce, and small-scale cattle operations that compete with the industrial sized ranches that dominate South Texas.

I’m not sure what this says about cities like Houston and Beaumont and Port Arthur, or the many small communities, like Rockport, that line the Gulf Coast. Except this, maybe: No matter what we think or hope, Harvey has changed the region permanently. Things will never be the same. And this: the region’s future will not be the one we think it will be today. One final thing: although I write this from a distance, Harvey changed me, as well, because history has once again hit home.

Robert Schoone-Jongen is in his fourteenth year at Calvin College, working with student teachers who hope to become high school and middle school social studies teachers. His historical interests are immigration, American social history, and the presidency. 

About historicalhorizons

The blog of the Calvin College History Department
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