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Response to Hurricane Rita by TDCJ Maintenance employees recounted

black and white art of tree fallen down on power linesBy Jim Davis
TDCJ Director of Maintenance

Late on the night of September 23, my deputy, Johnny Willis, and I were in Huntsville at the agency’s Emergency Operations Command center, set up in response to Hurricane Rita’s march toward the Texas Gulf Coast. We knew we were going to take a major hit, and the first word of damage arrived shortly after 1a.m. when we learned the lights were out at Stiles and the perimeter fence had major damage. I said, “Johnny, we have to get some people there as soon as possible and they need your leadership on the scene.” He said he was packed and ready to go.

Johnny called Region II Maintenance Manager Mike Bowling at Beto and asked him to round up some people. By 4 a.m. Mike, his electrical/mechanical supervisor Joe Allen, Johnny Largent, Keith Smith, and Tommy Carr were on the road.

Rita was headed north from Beaumont, ripping her way into deep East Texas. Our plan was to take I-45 south, turn east on I-10, and enter Beaumont south of the storm. Johnny was able to hook up with the Beto contingent close to New Waverly at approximately 6 a.m.

Later, Johnny told me how strange it felt to go through Houston on Loop 610 and not see a single car. East of Houston they saw only one vehicle driven by a free-lance television reporter who stayed with them and videotaped their activities, which included driving off-road to avoid downed power lines. At one point, the reporter inquired about the fuel barrels on the convoy’s trucks and offered to pay $20 a gallon for some gasoline. His offer was declined.

By early morning the group arrived at Stiles to find at least six emergency generators were not working. Over the next 12 hours Mike and his crew made repairs, then left for Houston to find a bed and a meal. While the rest of the crew got a meal and sleep, Johnny Willis continued working. At one point all the perimeter lights suddenly went dark. Fortunately, unit maintenance employees were able to reset a generator timer to turn the lights back on.

At 2:00 a.m., Region I Maintenance Manager Junior Lapaglia responded to the Goree Unit in Huntsville where a high-voltage transformer pole had fallen. Junior, Region VI Electrical/Mechanical supervisor Keith Necessary and his high-voltage crew worked through the night and most of the next day to restore power.

At 4:30 a.m. I contacted Beverly Shoaf, Region Maintenance manager for Region VI, and assigned her the task of rebuilding the Stiles fence. She and her crew began to gather all available fencing materials and tools. Beverly led the truck convoy, driving a dump truck pulling a heavily laden equipment trailer. With her were Kenneth Dahl, Ronald Dyer, Paul Wiggins, Rocky Diserens, Raymie Moore, and Ray Smith. They arrived at Stiles shortly after noon the following day and got busy rebuilding the fence.

There had also been major damage at the Lewis Unit in Woodville. I called Region V Maintenance in Childress out early Saturday morning and diverted Tommy Vian, Region V Maintenance Manager, to Lewis, along with Anthony Brandon, John Cooper, Raymond Turvaville, and Robert Shirley. By afternoon they had repaired generators and removed debris. On Monday they began replacing half a dorm roof, a task they completed in only three days.

While Junior Lapaglia was working on the power line at Goree, his people were the first to open Highway 190 between Onalaska and Woodville. With their chainsaws and high voltage safety gear, Junior’s people cleared the way for many official rescue efforts that followed.

Region IV Maintenance out of Beeville provided eight employees, with two arriving in Huntsville early Saturday to help with the high voltage problems. Six more arrived in Beaumont on Sunday and began replacing torn building metal at the Gist State Jail.

In Dayton, the Hightower, Plane, and Henley facilities also suffered damage from Rita. Ken Breeden, retiring Region III Maintenance manager, worked with local authorities to restore water and sewer service. Hightower Unit Maintenance Supervisor James Weaver rode out the storm on his unit, working several days without rest. Region II employees, including Fred Stanly, Kim Farguson, Brian Batton, and Gurney Unit Maintenance Supervisor Perry Kilgore worked 23 straight hours restoring power to the Coffield Unit in Palestine and the Hodge Unit in Rusk.

All of these Maintenance personnel worked at least 18 hours a day and many worked around the clock, not once, but two or three times before they got to rest. New Region III Maintenance Manager Jack Harmon led the overall effort at Beaumont as the days progressed, repairing buildings the Gist State Jail, restoring the Stiles fence, and completing many other tasks in only a few weeks.

TDCJ Maintenance crews were tested by adversity, but throughout all of this I never heard a complaint from anyone. To all of my Maintenance Department staff I offer my fondest gratitude and thanks. I cannot find words to express how proud I am of these men and women.

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