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Texas

A Helicopter Tour Over Harvey's Devastation Of East Texas

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Joey Palacios
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Texas Public Radio
Near the eastern edge of Houston, roads, buildings, and cars are still innundated by floodwaters

Communities along the Texas coast are still reeling from Hurricane Harvey. It will take months or in some cases even years for things to return to normal. Some of the areas damaged heaviest by flooding are east of Houston in and around Beaumont. The Army and Texas National Guard have been stationed to help with recovery efforts. This week, TPR's Joey Palacios flew with the army via helicopter to Beaumont to survey the damage from the storm as generals received updates from ground troops on recovery.

You can hear this story by clicking the play button below:

It’s 9:00 AM and three Blackhawk helicopters touch down at San Antonio’s Ft. Sam Houston. The fleet is headed to Beaumont, where U.S. Army North and the Texas Guard are providing support to victims in some of Harvey’s hardest hit areas.

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Credit Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
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Texas Public Radio
A blackhawk helicopter touches down at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio.

Close to 3000 feet in the air, the flight takes just over two hours.

Two weeks ago, Harvey made landfall and began its extended stay in Texas.  Passing over Houston, lingering floodwater overtakes roads and apartment buildings are sitting like islands, while cars are still half submerged.

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Credit Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
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Texas Public Radio
Cars in a Houston apartment complex are still submerged nearly two weeks after Harvey made landfall

Landing in Beaumont at the Ford Entertainment Complex, the events venue now serves as the staging area for operations around Beaumont.

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Credit Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
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Texas Public Radio
The Ford Entertainment Pavilion is surrounded by 18-wheelers and serves as the base of operations for Army North and the Texas National Guard

Lt. General Jeff Buchannan of U.S. Army North, and Brigadier General Pat Hamilton of the Texas National Guard are greeted by military personnel as they exit the helicopter. They’re immediately escorted to a meeting room for a briefing on recovery efforts.

The call for recovery efforts for Harvey was massive. General Hamilton says Governor Abbott called for the entire guard’s support – about 16,000 service members – and asked for Army support as well.

“The last plan for us – the worst case scenario – which was Hurricane Ike called for about 3,500 national guardsmen. That I think will tell you the scope of this storm,” Hamilton said.

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Credit Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
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Texas Public Radio
Brig. General Pat Hamilton of the Texas National Guard (Center left) and Lt. General Jeff Buchanan of U.S. Army North receive a briefing on recovery efforts

There are also guard troops from 43 other states assisting. The mission for all parties has been rescue and distribution of basic essentials like water, food and even power generators.

General Hamilton says even two weeks after the storm hit, the search is still going on.

“There’s still some houses in areas that are completely under water. We still have to go in house by house, make sure if there’s any survivors in there hopefully get them out; if not then recover remains, just to ensure the houses are empty,” he added.

General Buchanan says conditions have drastically improved in the days since Harvey.

“For me, it’s actually looking a heck of a lot better than it was than in the recent past. There was tremendous flooding as far west as Katy and Hempstead and now that’s completely dry,” Buchanan added.

Many of the federal army personnel will now transition to response to the next threat.

“Some of them are redeploying to other places like Ft. Bragg, North Carolina and they’re getting set for a potential response to Irma,” Buchanan said.

The group has only been on the ground in Beaumont about an hour, before reboarding the helicopters and touring the damaged areas.

“We are wheels up from Ford Entertainment,” one of the Blackhawk pilots said.

Circling around Beaumont and then heading to Port Arthur, the communities between saw roads covered by water,  spilling into the front lawns of some houses. Homes that were free of flooding have piles of debris stacked along the street ready to be picked up.

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Credit Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
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Texas Public Radio
Some flood damaged homes in Beaumont and nearby Port Arthur are surrounded by debris cleaned out from inside

“Still a lot of water,” General Hamilton said over the helicopter’s PA system.

In Port Arthur, General Hamilton asked to see the sites where supplies were being distributed.

“We’ve got about 26 of them set up around here,” he said as the pilots began searching for some.

Passing over a high school football stadium, the team name TITANS is stamped in both end zones of the field. In the parking lot, several 18-wheelers had unloaded supplies and a line of cars snaked around waiting for their turn to pick up supplies.

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Credit Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
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Texas Public Radio
Outside the Memorial Titans football stadium and Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Port Arthur, drivers line around a parking lot waiting for their turn to pick up supplies provided by the military.

And that scene is echoed at churches and other sites across the cities in this community.

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Credit Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
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Texas Public Radio
Drivers wait outside a church in Port Arthur to pick up supplies like food and water

Although the U.S. Army is leaving Beaumont, recovery is likely far from over. The Texas National Guard will remain in along with FEMA as these communities in the Texas Coast continue to rebuild their lives.