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After fleeing her home in Vidor to escape a dangerous hurricane, Susan Collier sat in a hot camper trailer in Killeen on Friday with $4 to her name. Her family’s 2004 Lincoln Aviator sat outside with almost no gas.
Money has been tight for Collier, her two kids and her partner since the coronavirus pandemic’s economic wallop took away her job. But after Hurricane Laura struck the Gulf Coast as a deadly Category 4 storm, she was even more desperate. She missed her home 280 miles away, was sweating in 100-degree weather, and had just lunch meat and bread to feed her children.
“We evacuated on a tank of gas and $50 dollars. Now we have no money,” the 44-year-old said Friday. “Right now I don’t even know how I’m going to go home, how I’m going to feed my kids.”
For many of the thousands of Texans who had to evacuate, Hurricane Laura added another tenuous layer to lives that have already been disrupted by a pandemic and its parallel recession. According to the Texas Workforce Commission, the number of people who have filed for unemployment in Orange County, where Collier lives, has almost quintupled since the pandemic began, compared with the same period last year.
Collier, like many others, had relied on unemployment benefits and a support network of family and friends to find jobs or borrow money. But as the pandemic has worn on, those friends and relatives were also feeling the effects of a prolonged financial crisis as evacuation orders were issued.
“There’s a segment of each community that lives in survival mode, paycheck to paycheck, and they are the ones most impacted from a crisis like this,” said Janie Johnson, CEO of United Way of Mid & South Jefferson County. “If their car has a problem or they have a flu and have to be off work for a week, they go from survival mode to financial devastation. And it takes more of them to get back on their feet.”
Collier lost her job as a home nurse in April, and her partner, Donald Bass, hasn’t been able to get a lot of work as a carpenter since March. She used to get $600 a week in extra unemployment benefits that Congress approved during the pandemic, which she used for paying bills. But those funds expired, and Collier is among the Texans who didn’t make enough money to qualify for a new $300 weekly additional payment meant to partially replace the original $600.
“I just wish things could go back before COVID. I was working 10-hour shifts, I had a good job. Things were different,” Collier said.
Recently, Collier started taking care of a relative who has cancer and has been able to bring home $75 a week. Bass has been fixing floors in the apartment complex where they live.
“My husband was finishing a floor job when we had to leave. We were supposed to get $1,300,” Collier said.
But the landlord was out of money.
“He gave us $75 in quarters from the Coke machine,” she said.
They spent that in gas and left for Killeen, where they had a cousin living on a property with some trailers. They weren’t sure where they would end up sleeping, so they tied an old mattress to the roof of their Aviator and drove off to Central Texas.
At home, Orange County was getting ready for a potentially catastrophic situation. On Wednesday evening, the National Hurricane Center had predicted “unsurvivable storm surge” and “hurricane-force winds” in the area. Gov. Greg Abbott had already declared state of disaster in more than 60 counties and said that there would be no rescue efforts from Wednesday night to Thursday morning.
“I wasn’t going to leave [Vidor], but our apartment manager told us that when the hurricane would hit, they would have to flip all the energy breakers, there would be no AC or light,” Collier said. “If I stayed, I wouldn’t be able to handle the heat. I didn’t have a choice but to leave.”
Although some buses left Vidor on Wednesday to take evacuees to hotel rooms paid for by the government, Collier never heard that this was an option. Even if she had, a bus would have been a tough option for her daughter, who is on the autism spectrum, and her pets.
Hurricane Laura ended up battering Louisiana far harder than Texas, and on Thursday, Abbott said that the damage on this side of the state line “could have been far worse.” Still, more than 100,000 Texans did not immediately have power in the East Texas counties of Jefferson, Orange and Hardin, local media reported. Some streets flooded, and fallen trees damaged power lines and blocked roads.
While Southeast Texas missed the brunt of the storm’s damage, Collier and her family were still desperate. They still didn’t have money for gas, and they were hearing that power wasn't reliable in Vidor. They tried to find assistance through the Red Cross and an emergency operations center in Austin but were told they couldn’t help. Most of the emergency operations were being dismantled by that time, as most people were heading home.
“Their challenges are exacerbated by the pandemic because agencies are already stretched so thin,” said Blake Fetterman, an executive director with The Salvation Army of North Texas.
By Saturday evening, when temperatures reached 104 degrees in the Killeen area, the family found help from the nonprofit Catholic Charities. The organization paid for a room in a local hotel and gave them some gift cards for food. Collier heard that power might not be back in her apartment complex until Friday, so she will need to be thrifty with the help they got.
“I have to try to maintain and save what we can from this. Make sure that we have [money] for food and gas,” she said. “But we are much better.”
As recovery teams are removing trees and debris in Orange County, Collier is still pondering the next move, unsure about electricity at home during the summer heat, short-term job prospects and restabilizing the family financially.
“We have bills coming in, and now we will have to get there and start playing catch-up,” Collier said. “We are going to have to get home at some point and try to get as much work as we can. The hardest thing to do is to catch up.”
Sally Beauvais contributed to this report.