In 'Energy City' USA, Hurricane Harvey's Fury Is Still Lingering



In 'Energy City' USA, Hurricane Harvey's Fury Is Still Lingering
It took five weeks for the largest US oil refinery to get back to normal after Hurricane Harvey.

(Bloomberg) -- It took five weeks for the largest U.S. oil refinery to get back to normal after Hurricane Harvey.

It’s taking Port Arthur, Texas, a lot longer.

Nearly two months after Harvey inundated Port Arthur, a crucial hub of the global energy industry, the city of 55,000 is struggling to recover.

As attention shifted to Puerto Rico, where the devastation from Hurricane Maria is far worse, water-logged debris still lines the city’s streets. The mess of furniture, carpets and appliances will take months to clear, Mayor Derrick Freeman said. Zika, mold, hepatitis and other health threats are a big concern.

“You’re picking up moldy sheet rock and refrigerators that have flies all over,” Freeman said.

The 2017 hurricane season unleashed its deadly torrents on industries and communities alike, but the ability to clean up and move on separates them. That’s been true not only for Puerto Rico, where most of the island is without power a month after landfall, but to a lesser extent in Port Arthur, also known as Energy City, whose facilities are responsible for 6.3 percent of American oil refining.

Even in Houston, the fourth-largest U.S. city, which received $50 million in recovery funds from the state’s $12 billion disaster-relief fund, clearing mounds of trash will take months, according to a statement from the city.  

Though problems persist, the Motiva Enterprises refinery, owned by Saudi Arabian Oil Co., and other Port Arthur facilities, run by Valero Energy Corp. and Total SA, had the resources to return to near-normal relatively quickly. On the other side of the razor wire, it will cost Port Arthur $25 million to cart away all the garbage, according to Freeman. The city received $10 million from the state fund, said Chris Bryan, spokesman for the Texas comptroller. The legislature won’t decide on further appropriations until its next session in 2019, he said.

Census Data

Port Arthur, 90 miles east of Houston, wasn’t a beacon of financial wellness before Hurricane Harvey, according to the latest census data. In 2015, 27 percent of residents lived below the poverty line, compared with 17 percent in the state of Texas and 11 percent in the U.S. Median household income in Port Arthur is $32,863, more than 35 percent lower than in Texas and the country in general. The town has roughly triple the percentage of black residents as Texas and the U.S.

The economic disadvantages translate into health concerns. Locals have started complaining about “weird” health concerns, including breathing problems and rashes, most likely from homes infested with black mold, said Dr. Marsha Thigpen, the executive director of the town’s Gulf Coast Health Center. 

Thigpen said she’s seeing 10 percent more patients than she did this time last year. The center is giving away hepatitis A vaccines and insect repellent to prevent Zika virus, she said.

Prolonged contact with mold can lead to neurological disorders, according to Dr. Claudia S. Miller at University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, memory loss and difficulty concentrating might appear to be from post-traumatic stress, but those problems also arise from toxic exposure, she said.

Trade Zone

Port Arthur’s three oil refineries are part of a peculiar jurisdictional setup. They aren’t sitting on city land. Like the embassies of foreign countries, they’re not technically on U.S. soil either. They’re in foreign trade zones, which allow the refineries an array of federal and local tax breaks.

The refineries are doing well financially. Motiva spent $7 billion on a 2012 expansion that more than doubled the facility’s capacity, to 605,000 barrels a day. The move set up the company to more efficiently process a range of crudes, including oil from Venezuela and Canada’s tar sands.


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