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One reporter’s unforgettable drive home to Beaumont


    Flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey rushes over a roadway in Beaumont, Texas, today.

BEAUMONT, Texas >> It would be impossible to count the number of times I’ve ridden down Highway 90 toward Beaumont, usually staring out of a back window, bored and tired as my parents drove, measuring the way home by the landmarks we passed: First the tiny town called China, where Disney built a mock Great Wall for the release of “Mulan.” Then the Elks Lodge on one side of the highway and the chemical plant on the other, and finally, the gas station by my grandparents’ house that — at least, to me — served as the city line, signaling we had arrived.

But when I pulled into Beaumont on Aug. 30, everything along the roadside had been something of a blur. All I can remember is clutching the steering wheel tight, inching forward as water splashed against the car and a stranger I’d picked up a few miles back kept reassuring me that I was doing a good job.

It has been more than a decade since I’ve lived in Beaumont, where I was born and raised. Still, the city’s grip on me has held strong. Fishing trips on Sabine Lake and my grandmother’s tamales occasionally lured me back.

But I don’t think I’ve ever been more anxious to get to Beaumont than this week.

For days, my parents had sent me pictures showing the pond across the street from their house encroaching on the front door. And on Tuesday, as I drove from Dallas, trying to get as close as I could, friends and high school classmates warned me of roads that were submerged and neighborhoods that were inaccessible.

As the sun started to set, Beaumont was effectively sealed off by rising water. I gave up, stopping in at a church and falling asleep on an air mattress behind the pews. I was just 40 miles away. But that night, as the rain crashed against the church roof, Beaumont felt an ocean away.

The next morning, I tried to chart my way in. What should have been the easiest option turned out to be impossible. Maps online showed Highway 90, a path I thought would be just as impassable as the first one, as the only open way. If you were one of many pickup trucks pulling a boat, that was true. But for a smaller SUV? Not so much. In my first attempt, a state Department of Transportation worker turned me away.

Hours later, I tried again.

The highway started off dry. Then, the water in the ditches started lapping onto the shoulder, and then spread over more and more of the road until it was completely covered, high enough to reach the grill of my SUV.

By that point, I pulled over, fretting. I felt stuck in place, water all around me. And then Patrick pulled up.

Patrick, who described himself as a career Army veteran, and his son, a college freshman, were trying to get home to Nederland, on the other side of Beaumont. He knew his sedan, already overwhelmed by water, did not stand a chance. He looked under my hood and told me that the air intake was placed high enough to allow me to make it through deeper water. I’m not sure why I believed him, but I did.

We crept behind a line of trucks, and he coached me along the way: Slow down. Stick to the yellow line, the highest point on the road. Stop when the driver in the large pickup truck plowed through the water, stirring a wake that made me cringe as it rolled toward us.

Then, at last, the dry pavement returned, and soon, there was the gas station marking Beaumont. We could see the fields and parking lots that had become lakes, though we were able to cut a path through streets that were cleared of water even if they were still littered with mud, debris and stranded cars.

I called my parents after I dropped off Patrick and his son at their home. My parents told me their neighborhood was passable again. The pond had retreated. Now, there is only a stick in the front yard marking how high the water got.

I pulled into my family’s driveway, the journey finally over, and with perfect timing: My mom had just made pork chops for dinner.

Rick Rojas is a reporter for The Times who grew up in Beaumont.

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