His Home Flooded, the Port Arthur Mayor Puts His City First

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When the storm moved in on Aug. 30, the mayor was at home, hopping between calls, emails and text messages, when he noticed a shoe floating by. Shortly after, he posted videos of his house flooding on Facebook.

“We weren’t ready for that,” he told his viewers. “No one was.”

Before long, the water had climbed high enough to reach his waist. His wife had already taken their children to Austin. But the mayor had stayed put.

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Mr. Freeman, right, has been lobbying for federal aid and temporary housing for residents of Port Arthur, a town upended by Hurricane Harvey.

Credit
Eric Thayer for The New York Times

In Port Arthur, like many places along the Texas coast, time can be measured in storms: the surges of water during Hurricane Ike (2008), or the “blue roofs,” the government-provided tarpaulins that covered damaged homes, after Hurricane Rita (2005). But there was already a sense that this time, Port Arthur had been battered by something much worse.

Nearly a week after the flooding began, parts of the city remained inaccessible. The city’s newspaper, The Port Arthur News, had waist-high water in its office, and its editor, whose home and car were flooded, was commuting from a hotel room provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that was 60 miles away in Lake Charles, La.

In a church parking lot where a group from Louisiana was handing out meals, one man hugged the mayor with a pained look on his face. “We’re not doing those somber hugs,” Mr. Freeman told him. “We’re coming back, baby!”

The storm struck a city of 55,000 that already had its share of struggles. Port Arthur, like much of the region, has an economy driven by the oil industry, and it has the largest refinery in the United States within its city limits. Even so, unemployment and poverty have been stubborn problems, and the city’s busiest streets are checkered with empty lots and rundown buildings.

Port Arthur was once bustling, with a robust white middle class and the distinction, in 1973, of being an All-American City, a title awarded for civic innovation. But over time, the white population gravitated toward the cookie-cutter subdivisions that sprouted nearby, taking with them businesses that had been in downtown Port Arthur.

The void was filled, in large measure, by a wealth of diversity: The City Council is mostly black. A Vietnamese-American community flourished after the war. In one corner of the city, there was a Dominican barber shop, a Mexican meat market and a garden outside Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church with a statue of the Virgin Mary rising above nearby houses.

Before the storm, Mr. Freeman had ambitious aspirations: diversifying the economy and changing the minds of people who viewed the city as a place to avoid. As he confronts an enormous recovery, he hopes it will spark an infusion of opportunity rather than dashing hopes for change.

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Mr. Freeman carried water to the First Sixth Street Baptist Church, where residents were waiting for supplies.

Credit
Eric Thayer for The New York Times

But the mayor’s concerns now are more immediate. More than 100 schoolteachers and another 100 city employees, he said, did not have homes ready for them to return to. If the city were to spring back, they would need places to stay.

As a resident, he understood how difficult it could be to move forward. After all, he had made almost no progress in repairing his waterlogged home. “I’m happy to have a lot of work,” he admitted at one point to the police officer assigned to ride around with him. “It keeps my mind off of it.”

After a visit to a school whose gym had been transformed into a Red Cross shelter, the mayor hopped back in his car, one hand holding the steering wheel, the other a hamburger. Another dignitary, this time a United States senator, had come from out of town.

“All right,” Mr. Freeman said, laughing, “let’s see what my man Ted Cruz has to say.”

As he drove down streets that, days ago, he had traversed by boat, Mr. Freeman, 41, explained how deeply his roots ran in Port Arthur. He was raised here. The middle school he had just left used to be a high school, which he graduated from in 1994. He has family ties to the rapper Bun B, whose group UGK, short for Underground Kingz, started in Port Arthur.

He has known his wife, Shannon, a young adult author and high school English teacher, since he was a child; they attended church and Sunday school together.

He had a winding path to politics. He performed in a Christian rap group called T.F.O., or The Forgiven Ones. He was a disc jockey for the local hip-hop and R&B station, making $11 an hour during a prime evening shift. (His name on air: D-Free.) Then, he left for a decade, living around Los Angeles, hoping to make a career in the entertainment industry.

He returned when he and his wife were expecting their first child. He served on the City Council before he was elected mayor last year. His day job is in real estate, but through politics, he hoped he could make an impression on his city.

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Mr. Freeman outside his home, which was also flooded during the storm.

Credit
Eric Thayer for The New York Times

“To get a blessing, I always say, you’ve got to be a blessing,” he said.

There have been victories since the storm: the mayor announced schools would open earlier than planned. And there have been hurdles: Some residents expressed worries that the city had not done enough to prepare, and others complained about barges the mayor had hoped would house hundreds of displaced people.

After a week of dealing with the recovery, Mr. Freeman’s exhaustion was starting to show: He could not stop yawning.

The day had a packed schedule like the others before it: A briefing at Police Headquarters and meetings at City Hall. He drove to a mall to take a photograph with the retired baseball player Curt Schilling, who had traveled here to volunteer. Then he was off to the county airport to meet Elaine C. Duke, the acting secretary of Homeland Security.

He was mindful that Hurricane Irma, which struck Florida, might mean that the window of attention on Texas could be closing. He wanted to secure help before that happened. “We’ve got to do everything we can to regain or keep confidence in Port Arthur,” he said, “so they’ll rebuild with us.”

He followed Ms. Duke’s motorcade back to Thomas Jefferson, the school with the gymnasium filled with cots. Some residents slept on a warm afternoon, covers pulled up to their face. Restless boys chased each other. One asked an aide following Ms. Duke in a pinstriped suit if he were the president.

One woman gave the mayor a hug. It was his mother, Deborah, who has been among the regular volunteers. “They can say he’s young,” she said of her son, “but he’s got a lot of heart and a lot of wisdom.”

Another familiar person, a volunteer for his campaign, asked for $5.

The mayor pulled a wad of bills from his pocket and handed him one.

He climbed back into a sport utility vehicle, bound for another meeting at City Hall. He had a few stops left, but he would make it home before sunset. There, he would go upstairs and squeeze into his children’s bunk bed to sleep.

“Close the door,” he said, “and the smell doesn’t hit you too bad.”

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