“Y’all come on in and sit down,” yelled the white-haired lady from behind the counter as I entered the door of the small café. The Blue Plate Special was meatloaf with marinara sauce, green beans and mashed potatoes with a roll and I heard it was good. As I waited for my lunch, I could hear the two women next to me talking about the recent tornadoes.

East Texas suffered the wrath of at least five tornadoes last month. Roaring through several counties, the devastation they left behind impacted many people with tragedy and grief.

As I sat there listening to the women, their conversation made me think of all the reasons I love East Texas. I was born here and my East Texas roots go back at least a century. We hold bragging rights to pristine lakes and rivers, the oldest towns in Texas, beautiful trees, rolling hills, a rich history, abundant wildlife and the best in high school sports. That’s why I love East Texas.

Growing up, I heard lots of people refer to East Texas as “backwoods,” “rednecks,” and how I lived in the “Bible Belt” or behind the “Pine Curtain.” But unless you live here, you don’t understand how East Texans will always help their neighbors and rise to meet any challenge. That kind of spirit is just bred in us Pineywoods residents.

Here you will find farmers who grow the best gardens near the best educational and health facilities in the state. Our cultural centers, museums and art districts are beautiful. Our scholars, artists and entrepreneurs are judged some of the best in the world. But the recent storm tragedies caused everyone from farmers to CEOs to roll up their sleeves and help those in need.

As word of the devastation spread, volunteers arrived in Alto, Crockett, Austonio, Huxley, Lufkin and the historic city of San Augustine. People arrived in pick-up trucks, four-wheelers and tractors carrying chain saws to help pull people from the debris, including the mayor of San Augustine who was trapped beneath what was left of his home. Organizations and agencies also turned out to help, providing clothing, food and shelter. That’s why I love East Texas.

TxDOT crews responded immediately to clear the miles of roadway along state Highway 21 east and west as well as U.S. Highway 96. Many other roads were impassable, but within a few hours crews had a path cleared for emergency and utility vehicles to begin the work that still continues weeks later in Houston, San Augustine and Cherokee counties. That’s why I love East Texas.

“Momma, that lady from San Augustine is here to get her order,” a young lady said as she carried a to-go bag from behind the deli counter. By now, the white-haired lady had joined the women at the next table.

Wiping her face with her kitchen apron, she yelled back to the girl, “Don’t take her money!”

“Poor family,” she said. “They are staying here because it was the only room they could find. They lost everything. They don’t have nothin’ left. I don’t have much, but I got plenty of food.”

That’s why I love East Texas.

Rhonda Oaks is the public information officer for TxDOT’s Lufkin district. Her email address is Rhonda.Oaks@txdot.gov.