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Prison employees team up to weather Hurricane Rita as a family

People gathered together in meeting room with map of Texas-Louisiana border on projection screen
The movement of approximately 9,400 offenders was tracked along with the path of Hurricane Rita from the Correctional Insititution Division Emergency Response Command Center in Huntsville.
Photos by David Nunnelee
As August turned to September, Stiles Unit Operational Review Sgt. Nadria Turner was busy collecting items donated to aid the Gulf Coast victims of Hurricane Katrina and feeling fortunate that the storm hadn’t targeted Beaumont. Three weeks later, she and other TDCJ employees in Southeast Texas weren’t so fortunate.

“I wasn’t in their shoes but I knew I wanted to do something to help,” Turner said about her efforts to assist in the aftermath of Katrina only to be victimized soon thereafter by Hurricane Rita. “Now, being in their shoes, it’s really hard because you really don’t know what to do.”

In the early morning hours of September 24th, Hurricane Rita roared into the Beaumont-Port Arthur area with winds approaching 120 miles per hour. Inside the Stiles Unit, approximately 5,000 offenders, including those evacuated from the neighboring LeBlanc Unit and Gist State Jail, and more than 320 correctional staff rode out the storm without injury.

“It was like a freight train was sitting on top of the unit with the biggest military aircraft sitting right beside us,” Stiles Senior Warden Joe Smith said about the sound of the storm. “The noise was terrific. It seemed like an eternity, but it probably lasted about four hours.”

“It was like a locomotive coming through here,” Turner said. “You could feel the walls move. Words can’t ever describe it. It was very frightening.”

The lights went out at Stiles at about eight o’clock the night before the hurricane made landfall, forcing the unit to switch to emergency generator power. But at midnight, the generators overheated, leaving the unit in darkness until the sun came up about seven hours later.

“I went through one in the dark and I never want to go through one in the daytime where I can see what’s coming to hit me,” Smith said. “It’s probably the most scared I’ve been in my life.”

Smith said that except for Rita’s roar, it was remarkably quiet inside the unit. No injuries were sustained and security within the facility was never threatened.

“If you’ve ever heard a mouse in a church, that’s what it was like around here,” Smith said. “It was very, very quiet and still. The offenders never gave us a bit of trouble. I think they were as scared as everybody else was.”

Amazingly, LeBlanc Unit Sgt. Larry Loville slept through most of the storm once he was finally able to lie down after hours of extra duty.

“I think I went to sleep about two o’clock,” Loville said. “I laid down and when I got up it was pretty much over. I figured if you’re going to go, that’s the best way to go, huh?”

Inmate laying on bed pallette reading small bible
An offender evacuated to the Ellis Unit near Huntsville from the Scott Unit in Angleton passes the time reading scripture.

Stiles Unit Assistant Warden Wesley Freeman ventured out into the storm when the winds were blowing above 75 miles per hour to confirm a report that a section of the unit’s outer perimeter fence was leaning.

“I walked up to the fence and the wind was just whipping,” Freeman said. “I realized then that it was probably a silly thing I was doing.”

Smith said that when the winds rose above 60 miles per hour, the unit’s three tall perimeter pickets began to sway, prompting him to bring the officers down and to rely on heavy vans to patrol outside the fence. But as the winds picked up, the vans, too, had to be abandoned.

“You could see the state vans just picking up and moving and rocking,” he said. “So it became apparent that it was dangerous even to be out there in vehicles.”

At the suggestion of recently retired senior warden David Doughty, Stiles Unit staff stretched a nylon rope from the administration building to the front gate. Dubbed the “Doughty Rope,” the lifeline proved valuable even before the full fury of the storm hit.

“You had to hold on with both hands and you could see nothing in front of you,” Smith said.

Gist State Jail Sgt. Kevin Bowles rode out the storm with staff and offenders inside a gymnasium at Stiles.

“It was pretty scary to see the wind pick the water off the ground and the roof vents blowing off,” Bowles said. “But we stood together and did what we needed to do. I’m very proud of my staff. I don’t have enough words to describe how proud I am of them.”

Bowles said he has weathered every major storm to hit the Beaumont area since 1971.

“This was the worst one,” he said of Rita. “Praise God, I hope it’s the last one.”

LeBlanc Unit CO V Jeff Davis was working inside a housing dormitory at Stiles when the storm struck.

“It was loud,” he said. “I was surprised. I’d never been in one and it was intimidating, especially for a Category 3 storm. I would have hated to have seen a Category 5 come through.”

Once the storm was over, a number of employees assigned to the three Beaumont units were sleeping on cots at Stiles and LeBlanc because they either couldn’t reach their homes or had no electricity or water. Other employees found their homes severely damaged.

“I’ve got a tree where my kitchen used to be,” said Stiles Unit CO IV T. Gibson.

Within a few days a neighboring Texas Youth Commission facility that had been evacuated prior to Rita was converted into a shelter for the displaced employees and their family members. Post-trauma teams were sent in to help the employees cope with the loss and disruption in their lives.

Stiles Unit CO II Michael Sanders said his house survived the storm but that he still had no utilities four days afterward.

“It’s kind of rough sleeping around here,” he said from a cot set up in the indoor visitation area at Stiles. “But I don’t have any electricity or water at my house so this is better than nothing.”

To make matters worse for those without power or water, temperatures in Southeast Texas soared to record-breaking levels following Rita, topping 100 degrees for several days. On one afternoon as a potluck lunch was being served in the lobby of the darkened administration building at the Plane State Jail in Dayton, employees tried to stay cool by fanning themselves with paper plates.

Plane Senior Warden Wilhelmenia Howard said approximately 2,600 offenders and nearly 125 officers rode out the storm at the unit, where evacuation drills were conducted over a two-day period before Rita’s arrival.
“Everybody made a commitment that they were going to do this as a team,” Howard said. “And we did well. Everybody was in their place.”

Howard said the unit stood up well to the winds that were predicted to top 75 miles per hour in Dayton.

“It was scary watching the winds because they were coming from different directions,” she said. “But we were blessed because the only thing we saw that was even flapping was one of our security mirrors.”

Smith said that despite the damage and disruption Rita caused, her storm clouds did have a silver lining of sorts.

“The great thing about it is that we were able to bring three units of staff together and they formed as a family,” Smith said. “The 320 officers tht started this with us and went through it are some of the best troopers in the state of Texas.”

Howard agreed.

“We worked together as a team from the very beginning,” she said. “I’m really proud of the staff.”

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