Seeking Refuge

by Elliott Harris

Eugene Lewis stands confidently and near-perfectly straight, just crooked enough that he can keep his arm extended to grip the top of a dining-room chair as he talks. It seems a move of comfort or habit, where he feels most at home. As often as his hand rests contentedly on that chair, it is as often put to use as a conversational tool to solidify a point he wants to make, or to land the end of a joke he has perfected over the years.

Around him is a captive but small audience, each of them partners in a two-year journey that led Mr. Lewis where he is today: standing in a new home settled on a plot of land here in Refugio, Texas, a small town of fewer than 3,000 residents near the Texas coast. In 70 years of life – nearly all of them spent in Refugio – Mr. Lewis has been a college-level athlete, an oil industry worker, a radio sportscaster, a drummer in a traveling band, a Baptist pastor, a school-board member, a son, a father, a brother and a grandfather.

The story of the last two years, a short but significant part of Mr. Lewis’ life, says as much about him as it does about human nature in the wake of loss, exemplifying the goodness of people in the worst moments of life.

When Hurricane Harvey, a category 4 storm, whipped the Texas Coastal Bend with winds up to 132 mph, Mr. Lewis was one of many affected. After it struck the coast, the storm wandered northeast to drench areas between the city of Houston and the Texas-Louisiana border with, in some places, more than 60 inches of rain. The National Hurricane Center described Hurricane Harvey as “the most significant tropical cyclone rainfall event in United States history… since reliable rainfall records began around the 1880s.”1

As Hurricane Harvey got close to making landfall in August of 2017, Mr. Lewis, the pastor of Union Baptist Church and a member of his district’s school board, planned to stay in his hometown to wait out the storm as he had for hurricanes in the past. Fortunately, his daughter convinced him that this time might be different. Mr. Lewis headed out of town, seeking refuge for what he thought would be a short stay.

However, as the nation watched Hurricane Harvey tread out of the ocean and onto land, it became evident that recovery would be neither quick nor easy for many living along the coast, including in Refugio. When Mr. Lewis first returned from evacuation, he grasped the extent of the damage. “I’ve never seen this before; nowhere to stay, no cooking, no bathing, no nothing,” he says.

The town was shred to pieces, and everyone who called Refugio home came back to a new reality. For Mr. Lewis’ part, this meant a significant change in two areas of his life: his church and his home.

Mr. Lewis had pastored Union Baptist Church since 2004, and been a member since 1985. Harvey had struck the church hard, but fortunately it was not beyond repair. His home, however, was a different story.

Eugene Lewis

Before the hurricane, Mr. Lewis had looked back at his house and said that, no matter if it was there when he got back or not, “I thank you for all of the years that you have provided shelter over my head.” Now, his words seemed grimly prophetic.

The small house on Commons Street had been his since 1981. After the storm, only pieces of debris remained as evidence that a home ever stood on the lot. It wasn’t just the structure that was gone – the roof that kept him dry when it rained, the walls that held stories if they could tell them – Mr. Lewis lost precious photos, family possessions, art from grandchildren and other material things that meant little to others but the world to him. He lost part of his history in the hurricane.

The immediate aftermath from Harvey was frantic as Mr. Lewis tells it, but he believes that the sense of community Refugio discovered in that moment is what allowed its residents to survive. People from all over the U.S. came to assist with the recovery process, including some who would cook meals along the highway to feed survivors.

Once basic needs like food and water were met, long-term needs became the focus as survivors worked toward reestablishing their lives. For Mr. Lewis, that meant repairing Union Baptist Church and finding a new home after the destruction of his own.

Because the insurance on Mr. Lewis’ house only covered fire damage, filing a claim would not be an option for rebuilding. However, some good news came when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officially began relief for Refugio and other areas affected by Hurricane Harvey less than a week after the storm. As part of those relief efforts, Mr. Lewis was approved for placement in a hotel in Beeville, which would become the closest thing he had to a home for the next 276 days.

One day during this period spent between a Beeville hotel and his hometown, Mr. Lewis met a group of Christian volunteers based out of Oklahoma who were visiting Refugio to help rebuild. When the group learned of Mr. Lewis’ situation and his decades of life and legacy in Refugio, the lead volunteer on the team told Mr. Lewis that he was confident the organization could build Mr. Lewis a house with the resources they had available, though it would take time.

While he worked and waited patiently on the blueprint of his own recovery, Mr. Lewis helped repair his church, which fortunately was well-insured. It would take about a year and a half to rebuild to the point that the congregation could begin worshipping there once again, but the lack of a church building did not mean the end of its people, and Mr. Lewis took time to help his fellow congregants, as well as his Refugio community, in small ways he was able.

Because he assumed the cost of a new home was likely to be covered by the generous work of the volunteer organization from Oklahoma, Mr. Lewis felt that any money he had or was given by others was too generous – a blessing from the Lord that went beyond Mr. Lewis alone. In faith, he used some of his own finances to help church members and neighbors with gas and groceries, or home repair.

Small gifts like these soon added up, and although Mr. Lewis stretched himself and contributed more to his community than he could safely afford to, he felt it was the right thing to do as a leader in the Refugio area, trusting God to care for his needs with the knowledge of his heart and the intention behind his generosity.

A few months had passed from Hurricane Harvey’s landfall when word came back to Mr. Lewis that the volunteer who had suggested their group might be able to help build Mr. Lewis a new home had unexpectedly suffered a heart attack and passed away. After a devastating loss in their organization, the volunteers from Oklahoma were not able to return. Mr. Lewis would have to find another way to rebuild.

The pastor was out of money, out of a home, and running out of time. While the support he had received from others had been a tremendous blessing so far, that support came with conditions and deadlines. Even with the progress he had made, he was far from returning to a point of self-sustainability. His fortunes ebbed and flowed with the generosity and availability of those around him. He was ready for a change; to finally establish something closer to a normal life.

Almost two years after the storm, much of this small city near the Texas coast remains in disrepair.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, BCFS Health and Human Services’ Emergency Management Division (EMD) was tasked with offering relief to areas along the southeastern coast of Texas. After six months of work there, EMD shifted its efforts both in service and location, focusing on long-term recovery for the Gulf Coast.

David Littleton, disaster case management assistant program manager with EMD, describes the quick transition from working with survivors of flooding to survivors of wind damage as challenging but hardly uncommon in their line of work. He says that, though the situation changes, the premise is the same: connect with individuals, listen to their needs, and build a path forward that leads to recovery.

On May 7, 2018, EMD officially began long-term recovery in Corpus Christi. The next day, Mr. Lewis walked through EMD’s doors as the first survivor they would help in the area.

“I met Mr. Eugene Lewis as our first client with [EMD] and I was so determined to help him as much as I could, because I knew he gave back so much to Refugio County,” says Monica Martinez, the EMD case manager who assisted Mr. Lewis’ recovery for the first six months of his case.

Monica Martinez catches up with Eugene Lewis.

Mr. Lewis remembers the EMD staff greeting him with enthusiasm, leading him to the door and offering him coffee and donuts. Though the EMD team was excited to meet their first client and open their first case, David says that they treat every survivor they encounter with an equal level of readiness, and a willingness to respond to their needs.

Highest on the list of Mr. Lewis’ needs was a permanent place to call home. He was still in a hotel when he began his case with EMD, and solving his housing problem would be both the top priority and the greatest challenge of his case. Aristeo Valdemar, an EMD case manager who began working on Mr. Lewis’ recovery in August of 2018, speaks to that challenge:

“Mr. Lewis is a very compassionate man, being a pastor. I don’t think he gives himself enough credit because, instead of using any money he was given on himself, he ended up helping the residents of Refugio County,” says Aristeo, “And it was a struggle to get from there to here because, you know, who gives away all their money to help others instead of helping themselves? Well, Mr. Lewis did; he did it!”

Aristeo Valdemar discusses what he and Mr. Lewis overcame together.

Nonprofits helping residents in Refugio struggled, understandably, to believe that Mr. Lewis was as benevolent as he appeared. Aristeo, however, knew the truth of Mr. Lewis’ situation after hours of conversation directly with him and with community members who were an instrumental a part of Refugio. The details revealed a man of character who wanted the best for his hometown.

As Mr. Lewis struggled with what was next for him, new hope came when Aristeo handed Mr. Lewis a contact number for Samaritan’s Purse and suggested he call them. The organization told Mr. Lewis that his case was eligible for review, but that it would take time.

A month later, the gravity of the situation began to sink in. “I was at the church cleaning up,” Mr. Lewis recalls, “And I had just thought about it and I said, ‘I need to pray.’ So, I got down, on my knees, on the front row. And I was praying. And I was praying and I was praying. I said, ‘Lord, now you know my situation. This is your will. This is your will. I can’t do nothing. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know which way to go from here.’ And then my phone rang; it was Cindy.”

Cindy Barton was serving as a case worker with a division of Samaritan’s Purse that helps replace manufactured homes damaged in Hurricane Harvey – one of several branches within Samaritan’s Purse that worked to heal Refugio after the storm. After collaboration with partner organizations in the area, and some investigation of her own, Cindy was able to utilize the donorship of Samaritan’s Purse to provide Mr. Lewis with a new home.

Cindy shares that, “Because we are a donor-funded ministry, and we want to be good stewards of those donor funds, we do a significant amount of due diligence to make sure that we are truly assisting those who really need the assistance.” After careful research, Mr. Lewis was found to be one such candidate.

“We talked to a lot of people in Refugio, and we’re going to get you a home,” Mr. Lewis remembers Cindy telling him over the phone. “I had to wait to get my composure back together,” he says.

Cindy and Samaritan’s Purse were far from the only forces that brought Mr. Lewis into his home. People like Cathy Garcia from Society of St. Vincent De Paul’s House in a Box program and Dorey Williams from the Refugio Volunteer Reception Center had a major part in Mr. Lewis’ story and in the stories of so many survivors in Refugio County.

“This is what disaster case management is. It’s a collaboration of resources and work to serve one survivor, one family that was affected by a disaster. And without each person’s hand and assistance and brains and smarts, it won’t be accomplished,” says Cathy. With the help of BCFS Health and Human Services’ Emergency Management Division, in partnership with many other agencies and individuals united by a single mission, Mr. Lewis continues his legacy in Refugio to this day. After 19 months without a home, the collaboration of more than eight organizations and many volunteers returned stability to one man’s life.

Glancing around his living room at the group who made his recovery possible, Mr. Lewis appears uncharacteristically pensive as he considers his journey here. “Without them, it would have been real rough for me,” he says. “God blessed me through these people that are here. And I thank the Lord for that.”

From left to right: Aristeo Valdemar, Grace Cortez, Carmen Anguiano, Monica Martinez, Eugene Lewis, Dorey Williams, Cathy Garcia and David Littleton stand together in Eugene’s new home.

1National Hurricane Center Tropical Cyclone Report: Hurricane Harvey. Eric Blake y David Zelinsky. May 2018.