“Home away from home”: Serving seafarers after Harvey

On Saturday, August 19, the Corpus Christi Seamen’s Center hosted a barbecue for seafarers, volunteers, staff, and anyone interested in supporting the work of the nonprofit organization. The Center tends to the merchant mariners who move 90 percent of the world’s trade by sea. The organization, which sits just off the Corpus Christi Bay on Mesquite Street, bills itself as a “home away from home” for merchant sailors, offering free WiFi to call home, mail service, recreational facilities and items, a snack bar and shop, and a warm welcome to seafarers from around the world.

These sailors are among the most frequently overlooked workers in the global economy. This makes an organization like the Seamen’s Center a real joy for mariners when they’re able to manage a few hours ashore. The Aug. 19 event helped keep all of these services in business for the coming year, with the Brush County Cookers BBQ Team putting out a full board of chicken, sausage, Spanish rice and borracho beans under the sponsorship of H-E-B. The event was a smash hit and CCSC staff had the best problem they could ask for: far more people attended than were projected.

Last Friday night, that good problem turned to a much worse scenario as Harvey bore down on the Texas coast. Would Harvey leave Corpus Christi and its Seamen’s Center relatively unscathed, as previous storms had done, or would it be a repeat of Celia in 1970? That storm caused more than $500 million in damage in 1970 dollars — with $450 million to Corpus Christi alone.

It’s well known that Corpus Christi sees itself as a communally focused place and the Seamen’s Center is no exception. The maritime industry, local churches, and other community organizations all help keep the center afloat throughout the year. That’s why when Harvey made landfall last Friday and unleashed destruction through wind, debris, and flooding, those connected to the Center weren’t just concerned for their own homes: they were worried about the seafarers’ home away from home, too.

After the storm, Sharon Emerson, Executive Director of the Seamen’s Center, said “it’s a Godsend that we were spared — again.” Come Sunday evening, when Harvey had done all the damage it was going to do to Corpus Christi, Emerson was among those grateful the storm wasn’t worse. The Seamen’s Center’s building, near Heritage Park, needed attention before the hurricane, so a Celia-level storm likely would have been catastrophic. But she gave the site a once-over from the outside and said it looks to be all right for now.

The building is on piers, so flooding isn’t a concern. The biggest expense will be reprovisioning the Center’s inventory of food: all of the burgers, hot dogs, and anything else refrigerated now has to go, as power was lost. Plenty of people are throwing bad food out right now, but an outing as small as sharing a snack bar meal with fellow sailors and volunteers at the Seafarers’ Center is often the highlight of mariners' time in port. Seafaring life is inherently isolating and losing access to a social center only isolates those men further.

Compared to the massive flooding that Houston is suffering, a fridge full of bad food and a lack of power seems relatively easy to overcome. The costs of reprovisioning will hurt, but “we’re lucky our story isn’t as bad as other places,” Emerson said.

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