Seafarers know the incredible power of water. Their whole lives are spent mindful of safety precautions against water’s destructive potential, especially during storms at sea. We know this on land, too, but often don't think about it until a crisis is upon us. The images we see of Houston in the past days show great destruction and trauma. While it is touching to see citizens bonded in prayer and action with each other and civil authorities, there is still great potential for more destruction on the way in the coming days.
Harvey has brought to a halt the normal work of the maritime industry, as well. The West Gulf Maritime Association, a generous partner for NAMMA’s members in the West Gulf region, reported Monday morning that the Coast Guard Captain of the Port, Sector Houston-Galveston, expects the port to remain closed for traffic for the next 48 hours, and traffic may not start moving until Thursday, and possibly later.
At the same time that Houston residents are trying to care for their own homes and ensure their safety, seafarers’ “homes away from home” – the seafarers’ centers, ministries, and other organizations that care for mariners – are threatened by Harvey, too. Many seafarers’ centers will be closed for 48 hours and probably more, especially if it is found they are damaged by flood waters. Seafarers’ centers are located in most ports along the Gulf Coast, providing local transportation, communication services, and a friendly welcome for visiting mariners.
David Wells, chaplain at the Houston International Seafarers' Center, relates that Center director Pat Poulos decided to close both center locations through Wednesday for certain and likely until Friday. Even if the risk of flood damage has subsided, blockages on major freeways and exits will prevent opening until cleared. The ship channel remains empty as most ships have opted to ride the weather out at sea.
Chaplain Wells made a beautiful observation in the midst of the disaster, saying “I feel at sea in my little area – I am safe in my house, but flooding is all around me, so I can’t get out.” Yet the crisis has offered the opportunity for seafarers to reverse the normal roles: “Many of the seafarers we typically care for are caring for us. Via social media we have received their kind words and prayer; they are used to the power of the water and difficulties of being at sea.” He added, “I feel so good because of this encouragement from them. But so many others in the Houston area are lost and lonely in the floods – I feel such concern for them.”
The Houston office of the Seamen’s Church Institute noted that all area staff are safe. On social media they honored the work of first responders and rescue workers, saying “SCI salutes the efforts of the USCG and Houston emergency services who are doing so much to help.”
Karen Parsons, Executive Director of the Galveston Seafarers’ Center, reported personal and Center losses. “The first floor of our home flooded yesterday, although the water has now receded from our street.” She said the seafarers’ center is surrounded by water, preventing anyone from entering the building and inspecting the present degree of damages. It remains closed until further notice, and fears of a repeat of Hurricane Ike in 2008 are on everyone’s mind.
Doreen Badeaux in Port Arthur reported similar conditions and that her center remains closed until further notice, too, although her home did not suffer damage. Fatigue is the major concern for her and her staff. As in Houston, the port is closed. Yet this area also witnessed a welcome act of generosity: one seafarers’ center volunteer is also a crabber, and offered a boat and services to the Coast Guard Captain of the Port. Badeaux noted also that NAMMA WiFi hotspots, funded by the ITF Seafarers’ Trust and usually provided for seafarers’ use in port, have been used to communicate during the storm to make sure all staff were safe.
Bobby Fuller at Texas Port Ministries in Freeport said the port itself is closed, but neither the seafarers’ center nor his home are damaged at this point. Some of his volunteers have evacuated their own homes. A lack of damage at the center does not rule out the possibility of future problems, especially with river flooding: Fuller reported that the fear is the Bernard River may flood its banks on Monday or Tuesday, and perhaps the Brazos later in the week. The seafarers’ center will remain closed until the port opens again, no sooner than Tuesday or Wednesday.
Deacon Patrick Lapoint in Lake Charles, Louisiana, reports heavy rain but not as much flooding as in other affected areas. The shipping channel is closed, with three ships in port. Fortunately, the seafarers’ center has been able to remain open and has served those ships. Patrick and his staff are grateful for good conditions so far but are bracing for possible flooding later in the week.
NAMMA counts as members and colleagues many seafarers’ center staff and volunteers all along the Gulf Coast and remains concerned for their safety, monitoring the situation as possible. NAMMA staff have coordinated with Association president Rev. Marsh Drege to send prayer updates, remain in contact with chaplains and staff, and keep in touch with centers via social media and text messages throughout the weekend and into the week.
Although sometimes obscured in the day-to-day work of both running NAMMA and serving seafarers, maritime ministry embodies the centuries-old pairing of prayer and work – ora et labora. Congregations of every denomination that supports NAMMA members have lifted up in prayer those afflicted by the storm, offering powerful encouragement for those in Harvey’s path. Sharon Emerson, Executive Director of the Corpus Christi Seamen’s Center, said “I felt in the outpouring of prayer on us” in the face of the wind and the rain. Amidst the destruction, NAMMA members are grateful for small material mercies, like cellular service and social media, to stay in touch with loved ones and colleagues. That is the ora – the prayer. The labora – the work – will come soon enough, as every NAMMA member indicated their readiness (and indeed eagerness) to serve seafarers again, as soon as it becomes possible. There is a great deal of work ahead to clean up or rebuild. Faced with the destructive power of the water on the land, seafarers’ ministries are more aware than ever of the isolation of the mariner: until these centers are operational again, those men and women remain afloat, cut off from the world.
Dr. Jason Zuidema is Executive Director of the North American Maritime Ministry Association, a professional network for port chaplains, ship visitors, staff and volunteers. NAMMA counts as members many of the seafarers’ center workers along the Texas coast. To learn how you can help the work of seafarers’ welfare, visit www.facebook.com/maritimeministry.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.