Earlier this year on the morning of March 14, Kilgore, Texas in Greggs County was the scene of severe straight-line winds whose ferocity caused city-wide power outages to thousands, damaged residential homes and vehicles and uprooted trees and power poles. Debris littered the area, making numerous roads and streets inaccessible.
The predawn damage inflicted on the 14,782 residents of Kilgore, a once thriving oil town in the 1930s and 40s, was unbiased. Kilgore’s emergency manager warned residents that due to significant power outages and no clear timeframe for when power would be restored, they must plan accordingly for this worst-case scenario.
Among Team Rubicon’s 33 volunteers to deploy to Kilgore on March 16 as part of Operation Black Gold was Kimberly “Kim” Stevens, 31, whose connection to the area harkens back to where her adopted parents first fell in love nearly 59 years ago.
It was love at first sight in the unlikeliest of places in 1960 Kilgore, Texas.
Neal Stevens, a transplant from Arkansas who lost his father when he was 14 years-old and who had to then support his mother and three siblings thereafter, was instantly enthralled upon seeing Ima Jean at a local sandwich shop in the small, East Texas city whose population at the time hovered just above 10,000.
He looked at his friend Judith Diley who was with him, and earnestly asked, “Who is that?” to which she responded, “Oh, that’s Jean [Ima].”
Jean, born and raised in Kilgore and the youngest of six siblings, was at the time in her senior year at Kilgore High School and working at the local drive through hamburger stand as a carhop (minus the roller skates).
Fortunately for Neal, Judith was a friend of Jean’s and was happy to introduce him to her which she did nearly a week later at the hamburger stand during Jean’s shift.
Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy. Neither came from money.
“They were dirt poor,” said Stevens of her parents circumstances when they dated.
Yet despite financial hardship, it didn’t take very long for Neal to ask Jean to marry him albeit from afar.
Seeing opportunity and a better quality of life for him and his siblings further west, Neal decided to move from Kilgore to Murrieta, California in Riverside County but in so doing, had mailed to Jean a ring and a note asking her to marry him.
She happily agreed. The day after graduating from high school in June, Jean boarded a bus bound for California as her husband awaited her arrival and with that the start to their lives together.
“Kilgore has always been a part of my life,” said Stevens who was born in Long Beach and adopted by Neal and Jean in 1988. Over the years, she had made many trips to the Kilgore to visit relatives from both sides of her family.
“It’s really cool just seeing over so many years of going back there and to be able to go back and do something for the people there and volunteer.”
“When I heard Kilgore that was the priority,” she said about making the 5-hour trek from Russellville, Arkansas where she was finishing up her M.S. in emergency management at Arkansas Tech University to be a part of Operation Black Gold.
This was Stevens’ second deployment with TR.
“Our family started right there, that’s where they met. That’s what’s so special to me,” said Stevens about the significance of aiding Kilgore’s residents in their hour of need.
The 10-day mission spanned debris management, damage assistance, and chainsaw assistance.
“There were a lot of massive trees that had fallen over,” recalls Stevens who was on the ground with TR for two days of the deployment. “There was a lot of damage.”
Stevens, for her part, was a “swamper” who assisted the chainsaw team clear out downed trees in a residential neighborhood. “Just in the two days we were there we completed three or four homes that had massive trees – some 100 years-old – that had fallen down.”
“That group of people they’re just solid,” said Stevens about serving alongside other Greyshirts contributing to disaster clean up in Kilgore, “they work so hard.”
Two months before straight-line winds blew through Kilgore, Stevens and her parents had been in town to attend a relative’s funeral. The last thought on their minds as they parted ways afterwards was of mother nature inflicting serious damage in the area come March 14 which would require the assistance from TR.
The unexpected natural disaster that hit Kilgore, the city in which nearly 59 years ago brought Neal Stevens and Ima Jean, two unassuming individuals, together, ushered in the opportunity for Kim Stevens to add another connection and by extension, her family, to the area.
Speaking to her parents about the part she played in Kilgore during Operation Black Gold, Stevens said, “they knew and were pretty proud of it and they thought it was so cool of all the places I could go.”