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Mayor Of Port Arthur, Texas, On Flooding In His City

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's travel east of Houston now to the city of Port Arthur. It's home to about 50,000 people and to giant oil refineries, including the country's biggest oil refinery. Operators shut it down because of the storm. Mayor Derrick Freeman is on the line now from Port Arthur. He has been out on boat rescues when not managing operations from his office. Mayor Freeman, good morning.

DERRICK FREEMAN: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: We're so glad to have you on. Now, your city has been essentially cut off these last few days by water because of the storm. Tell us is that still the case? Are you now able to get some food and supplies and people in and out?

FREEMAN: Yeah. We've been able to find a few dry streets to have folks meander through - some trucks from around the country. So we were cut off. But we - slowly but surely, as the water went down, people started to making it in. So we found a way. But, yes, ma'am. We were an island for a while.

KELLY: OK. So at the moment, you've got food. You've got medical supplies. You've got drinking water.

FREEMAN: Well, again, it's trickling in because a lot of the things that we need come from Houston. So, you know, and a lot of their surplus and distribution centers is under water also. So, you know, it's just - it is just a stress for everybody here right now on southeast Texas, definitely.

KELLY: Speaking of stressful situations, it's not every day a mayor gets to go out and see his city on a boat, which we understand you've done this week. You were out actually helping rescue people.

FREEMAN: Yes, ma'am. You know, it's hard to just - you know, I have different meetings and conference calls and whatnot. I've been having to get picked up to drive around the city and get picked - dropped off. And I'm always passing people. And it's just been so hard to pass people and not help.

We got a lot of people out there hurting. So, you know, they've tried to get me to meetings. But I just - I can't help myself. I had to get out and help several people throughout this week. And it's getting better. You know, we're getting a lot better. So we're doing well right now.

KELLY: And tell us just a little bit about what you saw. We've heard so many dramatic boat rescue stories out of Houston. Have you - you've been doing similar things there in Port Arthur?

FREEMAN: Yes, ma'am. You know, we've - you name it, they have been doing. We've had a tremendous outpouring of support from around the state, from Louisiana. They've come to Port Arthur and really helped us out to get people out of their homes, get people out of nursing homes.

They've just been a blessing - a true blessing to our city. So, you know, we - anything that you've seen on the news - helicopter rescues, boat rescues, airboats - it's all been doing - we've all been doing it here in Port Arthur. Same thing.

KELLY: What about the situation with shelters? I saw a story about hundreds of people who are - who have been sleeping in a bowling alley.

FREEMAN: Yes, ma'am. You know, at one point, when we first - when the hurricane was coming to town, we decided to go ahead and set up a shelter. We thought it'd be kind of - it'd be a rough one. So we set it up in - at our civic center here in Port Arthur. And I guess we got up to about 800 people - almost a thousand people. And the civic center took on water. So, you know, we had to move that because we had infrastructure inside that had backfired and had - things that we need to get people to a better ground so...

KELLY: And what does that look like? I mean, have you actually got people sleeping in the bowling lanes right now?

FREEMAN: Well, yes, ma'am. That's what I was getting at. Our civic center filled. And people got cut off. So we had to do makeshift things. Maxbowl has been so helpful with helping our citizens on that side of town. It was on the north end for a while. We weren't able to get everybody together.

He opened up his doors and feeding people. It's just been an awesome thing to see. It's been an inconvenience. But, you know, again, everybody is alive. We've had one fatality because of a heart attack. And it was a tragedy. But, you know, we're just - we've been trying to save lives and protect public safety so.

KELLY: Now, the oil refineries...

FREEMAN: (Unintelligible).

KELLY: I'm sorry to cut in. But I - we - our time is short. And I want to make sure I ask you about the oil refineries because I know they're the heart of Port Arthur. With them shut down, how do you get back to anything close to normal?

FREEMAN: Well, again, it's - we got hit with Ike. We got hit with Hurricane Rita. This is Hurricane Harvey. We've done it before. We've had to shut things down, evacuate and come back. But we're resilient. We'll do it again after Harvey just like we did after those other two hurricanes.

KELLY: Derrick Freeman, thank you.

FREEMAN: Thank you so much for wanting to listen to my story - our story.

KELLY: We wish you luck. That's Derrick Freeman. He's the mayor of Port Arthur, Texas, which is about 100 miles east of Houston.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CALM BLUE SEA'S "NOW THOSE ASHES ARE AT THE BOTTOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.