Cover Story

Up and down

What's it like to be the mayor of a city of 111,000 on the day a hurricane hits? WORLD spent Saturday, Sept. 24, with Beaumont, Texas, Mayor Guy Goodson and over the next three days looked at which reputations took a hit and which improved

Issue: "Rita: After the storms," Oct. 8, 2005

John Dawson reports from Beaumont with Marvin Olasky in Austin

Duck, dodge, weave . . . duck, dodge, weave," Guy Goodson, 54, said as he made his way past chairs, cans of food, bottles of water, and elected officials at Beaumont's downtown emergency center near the end of a long day. He might as well have been talking about his city and the entire state of Texas, which survived Rita with only 10 direct hurricane fatalities, six of them resulting from faulty generators that led to carbon monoxide poisoning and electrocution.

The hurricane did wipe out some small coastal towns in southwestern Louisiana; all that Rita left in Holly Beach, a vacation and fishing retreat of 300, were the stilts that used to hold homes out of the surf. In Lake Charles, La., which lost its electric grid and suffered flooding, police arrested 15 people for looting. The biggest disaster: An explosive bus fire during the evacuation of Houston and coastal cities took 23 lives. But those bracing for death and devastation spoke during succeeding days about witnessing deliverance-and that afforded time to think about what officials and citizens alike have learned.

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The mayor's Saturday began at 3:30 a.m. when he awoke from restless rest on a small thin mattress in the windowless microfiche room of a downtown office building. He had shared the space with the county judge, who snores, but it would have been hard to sleep, anyway. Wearing a blue rain jacket, a gray power company cap, and blue jeans tucked into knee-high rubber waders, the mayor hopped into a white Ford F-350 with yellow lights on top.

The hurricane, a Category 3 storm in Beaumont with winds of around 120 mph, had just passed through the city, and Mr. Goodson looked down one residential street where fallen trees outnumbered those still standing. A few people were also looking around: The mayor believed that about 100,000 of his constituents had left town, so "that leaves us with about 11,000 people that stayed. They're going to want us to take care of them now, but we're set up to handle and fix the infrastructure."

The fixing began quickly. Two days before the storm hit, the mayor and Beaumont's city manager were talking about how to protect city vehicles vital for recovery they feared might be destroyed by the storm. "We went past the ships and I had a thought," Mr. Goodson said, so he drove into the port area and within an hour or so arranged with two U.S. Navy captains to load Beaumont's fire trucks, ambulances, bulldozers, and other vehicles, 200 in all, aboard their massive cargo ships, the 631-foot USS Cape Victory and its twin the USS Cape Vincent.

The vehicles, loaded on Friday, paraded out on Saturday as soon as the bulk of the storm had passed. The bulldozers cleared streets of downed trees and retook the city that had been given over to Rita for a few hours. The situation in Beaumont was of course far different from that of flooded New Orleans, but Mr. Goodson and other officials gave no opportunity for criminals to become kings. Every Beaumont police officer able to walk-254 in all-spent the post-hurricane hours out on the streets patrolling; they also arrested upwards of 20 looters.

Beaumont's fixing escalated as Texas state authorities delivered the resources he needed-generators, MREs, cots, and extra front-end loaders-a little later than the mayor would have liked. He was using his Motorola cellphone so much that the battery was dying and he had to plug it into a generator-powered socket. "Big cities like Houston or Dallas can stockpile everything they need," Mr. Goodson said. "But cities like ours really depend on the state for reinforcements."

Even with the reinforcements, it still took time for normality to return. Beaumont had a "boil water" notice for days. The evacuation of Houston and other coastal cities led to 100-mile traffic jams on Texas freeways, with many motorists running out of gas. Not until Tuesday, Sept. 27, did many residents return home, with Texas Homeland Security Director Steve McCraw admitting he was wrong when he assured motorists that extra fuel would be available for their evacuation. He said officials had 100 refueling vehicles on the road but didn't anticipate the trucks being caught so long in traffic.

With so many unanticipated events, groups that became part of the solution rather than part of the problem were usually those most nimble and adaptable. Let's examine the growing or shrinking reputations of some key institutions and ideas.


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