A month after Hurricane Ike brought devastation to the Texas Gulf Coast, TxDOT repair crews are back home in Central Texas reflecting on their mission to clean up roads and highways damaged by the storm. TxDOT maintenance technician Troy Bishop of Liberty Hill is back on the job in Austin, but the memories of the mission to southeast Texas are still vivid. Bishop was one of 20 TxDOT employees dispatched from Austin on September 12th to ride out the storm and then go into damaged areas and repair the highway system. Bishop and his coworkers drove a caravan of heavy maintenance equipment, including dump trucks, cranes, and earth movers, into the hurricane zone. The team was well equipped, but nothing prepared them for what they were about to see and experience.
Hurricane Ike battered the Texas Gulf Coast with 110 mph winds and a 12-foot storm surge and has been blamed for 61 deaths, including 26 in Texas. More than one million people evacuated the Texas coast, and about 45,000 residents fled Galveston Island, about 50 miles southeast of Houston. The price tag for Ike’s damage is $11.4 billion dollars, including $16 million in damages to Houston according to estimates from the Governor’s Office. Bishop and his coworkers arrived in Bryan, Texas the night before the storm hit the coast. The crew hunkered down for the night in a church gym, knowing the next few days would bring long hours of work under harsh conditions. Waiting on the storm and resting on cots, TxDOT Maintenance Technician Gilbert Porras said, “We thought about our families and were glad they didn’t have to go through this.”
After the storm roared through southeast Texas, TxDOT dispatched the Austin crew to Beaumont and then on to Port Arthur to clear State Highway 73. SH 73 runs 42 miles from Winnie through Port Arthur to Orange. Hurricane Ike blew directly over the highway, leaving tons of mud and debris in its wake. Bishop, Porras, and the Austin crew’s assignment was to move the mounds of debris off the road. When the crew arrived, they discovered SH 73 was clogged for miles. The debris field was a mix of mud, seaweed, barrels of hazardous waste, dead livestock, and even some animals, still alive, but hopelessly trapped by the debris. The storm surge even pushed a couple of 200-ton barges onto SH 73 almost 10 miles inland from their berth in the Gulf of Mexico. Porras said, “It looked like the end of the world.” With mountains of waste ahead of them, the TxDOT crew began clearing the road, one scoop at a time.
Getting SH 73 open was critical because it is a direct route to the U.S. Oil Reserves, the nation’s primary stockpile of oil and gas, and to landfills that could be used for the gulf coast clean-up. For the next few days, crews used their equipment to shove tons of debris off to the sides of the road. Hours into the work, heavy equipment had scooped up mud and water, but the crew had no idea one particular load had something extra. Inside the loader’s scoop, two eyes emerged from the water; an alligator still alive and lying still. The crew emptied the alligator onto the road and before they moved on, they gave him a new name… Choppers.
In all, TxDOT maintenance crews from across the state cleaned and reopened 3,134 miles of the roads in a six-county area around Houston. Crews, especially from Austin, replaced or repaired more than 250 traffic signals that were damaged, destroyed or missing in 14 southeast Texas counties. Now back home with family and working on TxDOT projects in Austin, Porras and Bishop look back on the effort with a new insight. “It really makes you appreciate what you have here”, Porras said. Bishop says if another storm heads to Texas, he said he would not hesitate to help… ”Everything worked out great, I’d do it again.”