Deer Park mayor: ‘We will get through this’
Deer Park Mayor Jerry Mouton says things are not the same in his city.
“It won’t go back to the way it was,” he said at Deer Park’s first city council meeting after the recent Intercontinental Terminals Co. chemical fire and resulting release of crude oil and the hazardous chemical benzene led to shelters-in-place and the temporary shutdown of schools, businesses, a revered historical site and part of the Houston Ship Channel. “There will be a new norm.”
It’s too soon, Mouton said, to determine the economic impact.
City Councilwoman Sherry Garrison also thinks it is too soon to know the full impact of the disaster. But she recently got a reminder of the widespread publicity caused by the fires.
As she checked in for her flight at a Houston airport, an airport employee took her information and recognized Deer Park as Garrison’s home city and expressed concern.
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“I thought, ‘Wow, is that our place on the map now?’ Garrision said. “It made me realize how scary (it must have seemed) for other people as well as for us who live out here.”
A tradition of perseverance
Does she worry that the fires and the black smoke that hovered for days over the area will define Deer Park?
“No, we are the ‘Birthplace of Texas,’ and I’m not going to let that happen,” said Garrison, who is a member of the city’s historical society, which touts the area’s role in Texas gaining independence from Mexico in 1836.
Mouton said the post-event response will need to include extensive evaluations on how to move forward and not allow similar incidents to happen again.
“Every time you witness these kinds of things, you learn from your mistakes, or you are supposed to; so there should be some level of identifying what went wrong and if it is something that needs to be rectified or fixed or improved,” he said.
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Last year, residents celebrated Deer Park’s history of hardships and triumphs by marking 125th anniversary of the community, founded by Illinois political leader Simeon Henry West with northern settlers. Disasters came early — a freak 22-inch snowstorm struck in 1895, hoof-and-mouth disease killed most of the residents’ livestock and the Galveston storm of 1900 destroyed homes, crops and livestock and convinced some to move back north.
By 1922, Deer Park had dwindled to four houses, a schoolhouse, an old hotel, and scattered shacks by the railroad, according to an entry on the city’s website.
But the community rebounded when Shell Oil Co., which later became Shell Deer Park, broke ground for a refinery in 1928. The company became closely associated with the community. More refineries came, and that industrial development would become intertwined with the community’s economic and residential development. A school district was established and Deer Park incorporated as a city in 1948.
Mouton is originally from Louisiana and grew up in Deer Park; so he’s lived around industry most of his life and had family members who worked in plants, like many residents in the region. He has also ridden motorcycles for most of his life and drives his car every day, conscious of the inherent dangers. People naturally develop a sense of complacency, he said, and it takes an event like the ITC disaster to shake them out of it.
‘My family and community’
At one point in the aftermath of the fires, Mouton found himself at a meeting at a Houston TranStar location and came up to a large photo of the 1989 Phillips explosion in Pasadena, which killed 23 workers and injured 314.
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“When I walked up to this photo, I was like ‘Wow,’ because I had all but forgotten about it,” he said. “You do kind of forget sometimes, and I think there will be a season where we get past this and we may have a hard time remembering.”
The economic base provided by the petrochemical industry is a fact of life in the region, he said.
“My own way of balancing it out is that in every scenario of life, there are benefits and risks, and somehow we compartmentalize it in some kind of odd way, knowing that every day some things are just not going to work out the way they’re supposed to,” he said. “You can’t ignore the economic impacts of the benefits (of industry) and why so many people move into this region.”
The bottom line, said Mouton, is that those symbiotic roots can’t be reversed.
“We chose to live here, we choose to live here,” he said. “You can’t make any analogies of people being concerned without me saying, ‘Wait, I live here, too, I’m concerned.’ And it’s why I took an aggressive lead in working closely with incident command (during the ITC disaster) to make sure it was safe for my family and my community. It wasn’t preplanned, but I felt it was an important thing for me to do.”
ITC faces several lawsuits filed by Harris County, the state and residents, and environmental agencies continue to monitor air and water quality in the area.
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As normal activities in the city resumed, some lingering effects of the ITC disaster remained. The 1,200-acre San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site, located in the center of the industrial complex corridor, was closed starting March 17 because of the fire and it’s officials broke tradition by canceling the annual San Jacinto Day Festival.
“Because of the ongoing efforts of the cleanup and remediation of the pollution in the waterways and grasslands in and around the San Jacinto Site and continuing uncertainties,” San Jacinto Museum of History president Larry Spasic said in a statement, “we feel is is better to act proactively than reactively to these circumstances.”
Mouton had a personal reaction to the news of the April 3 fire in Crosby in a way that it might have been different if the ITC disaster had not occured.
“It was very personal, and hit closer than I would have imagined,” he said. “When I found out someone unfortunately lost their life, it puts it into (perspective). I was appreciative that no one got hurt in the ITC fires. I don’t think I’ll ever look at an event like this the same after going through the last two or three weeks. If there are lessons we can learn from this, I’m going to make sure we do, and we will get through this.”