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In the shadow of a smoking chemical plant, residents worry more about food and flooded homes

September 1 at 5:43 PM
A storm survivor sits in front of a destroyed horse corral on Hickory Lane in Crosby, Tex., in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on Friday. (Bill Gorman/Associated Press)

CROSBY, Tex. — To escape the backyard of Crosby’s failing Arkema chemical Plant, you need a big truck, a boat, or a Humvee on loan from the Texas National Guard.

Michellie and John Torres have none of those.

So they wander along Crosby Eastgate Road looking for a cellphone signal to keep up with the news and update worried family members from within the 1.5-mile zone authorities evacuated on Tuesday amid fears of an imminent explosion. The facility had flooded, and the coolant systems for volatile chemicals failed, sending plumes of black smoke into the sky.

“I guess they forgot about little ol’ us,” said Michellie Torres, standing within sight of a highway blockade guarded by police.

But the troubled Chemical Plant nearby wasn’t the first thing on her mind. Asbrown floodwater churned against her shins, she worried about running out of food, again, for her family, including her 18- and 20-year-old daughters. Her husband talked about a looming threat of looters.

“There has been a lot of movement of boats back here,” John Torres said. “We know they’re looters, because they’re not coming out later, and they don’t stop at night.”

The Torres’s concerns were a common refrain in Crosby: there are larger worries around town overshadowing the chemical plant, like being able to work and earn money to put toward destroyed homes and vehicles or having a home to return to at all.

On Friday, Daryl Roberts, Arkema’s vice president of manufacturing, said flooding at the facility had started to recede, but the electrical system needs major repairs, and it’s not yet safe to send workers into the complex.

“We believe that right now, the scenario that is available to us is to let that material burn out,” Roberts said.

But as authorities addressed the issues in and around the Arkema plant, Crosby residents forced to move outside the evacuation zone were anxious to return to their homes. The floodwaters — along with police barriers choking access to Highway 90, where the plant sits and links Houston and Beaumont — have disrupted the lives of nearly everyone, from fast food workers to industrial company owners trying to get back to work and routine.

“Most people aren’t real concerned” about the potential for more dangerous activity from the plant, Gary Hunter said. His girlfriend, Kendra Reese, agreed, as they rattled off details about other chemical plant and refinery incidents and explosions that affected the region in the recent past.

Gary Hunter’s Chevrolet Silverado 2500 passes a kayak, a pickup and a wayward refrigerator on the back roads of Crosby, Tex. (Alex Horton/The Washington Post)

Hunter sat in his Chevrolet pickup waiting for eight loads of clothes to finish drying at The Clothesline Laundromat on Thursday. Floodwaters wrecked the first floor of his home, about two-and-a-half miles from the plant, and destroyed his appliances, including his washer and dryer.

Hunter’s company, WellPoint Inc., drills drainage wells at construction sites. He anticipates it will be at least a few weeks before work orders start again. The western approaches to his shop next to his home are flooded beyond access of most vehicles. Word around town is it might be another week before the barriers come down, he said.

“As soon as it gets dry on the property, we’ll get set back up,” Hunter said. “But next time, I’m building my house up higher.”

The back roads approaching the plant from the Farm Market 2100 route cut through farmlands where livestock graze and irrigation equipment stretches beyond sight.

Much of that is underwater now. Old Atascocita Road, an east-to-west two-lane road connecting the northern approach to the plant, was littered with abandoned cars, some with single windows busted out from apparent escapes. Cows stood in water near the road or on porches where floodwater receded.

The water level licked at bumpers from big trucks like Chevy Silverados and Dodge Rams, and in at least two cases on a single road on Thursday late afternoon, trucks veered off the pavement and got stuck in the sunken earth. Good Samaritans stopped to lend a hand and tow straps.

Meanwhile, the plant let off small explosions, pops, or as one Arkema spokesperson artfully crafted Thursday, “an over-pressurization that was followed by a fire.”

One of those was at 2:30 in the afternoon Thursday, Michellie Torres said. She called it an explosion.

“I told John, ‘did you feel that?’ The house shook!” she said.

Another truck passed two drowned cows baking in the sun, and then the Torreses, who were standing in the water.

They too tried to get around the National Guard vehicle blocking access to the plant. The driver reversed, cruised pass the Torres family again with a wave, and headed back out to brave the newly formed lake in Crosby.

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