Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story stated that the Rebuild Texas Fund reported the amount of recovery money Nueces County, where Port Aransas is located, has received. The reporting agency is called the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas.
About 20 miles southeast of Rockport is the beach community of Port Aransas. City leaders there say Hurricane Harvey damaged 100 percent of the town’s businesses and 85 percent of the town’s homes.
Port Aransas Mayor Charles Bujan’s family has called the small island town home for more than 130 years. On August 23 2017, Bujan was being put to the test by the ocean he loved. He had been carefully watching what was at the time, just a tropical disturbance in the Bay of Campeche. And he had a really bad feeling about what he saw.
“As I watched it develop over time, I realized that there was no place it could come except right here in Port Aransas,” Bujan says.
On August 24, Bujan called for Port Aransas – which had a population of about 4,000 people at the time — to evacuate.
“And I’m glad I did, otherwise we would’ve had a lot of body bags after the hurricane,” he says. “Because we only had 12 hours to get everybody off here before this thing was a major storm. So that to me was the most difficult call of my life. I’ll never forget it.”
Port Aransas’ City Manager Dave Parsons didn’t leave the island. He decided to ride out the storm at the University of Texas’ Marine Science Institute.
“That was my one storm. So, I don’t think my wife would be too thrilled if I said I was staying for another one,” Parsons says.
On the night of August 25 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall near Port Aransas and neighboring Rockport as a Category 4 hurricane. Its winds were clocked at 130 mph.
The storm caused millions of dollars in damage to the institute, but that would be just the beginning of the damage Parsons would witness in the days, weeks and months after Harvey.
“It was almost like it was a decay spreading through town,” Parsons says. “So, the first day, it was debris on the street and then just, systematically, houses were being dismantled and being thrown at the edge of the street. So, the level of the catastrophe slowly grew.”
Mayor Bujan says the City of Port Aransas’s infrastructure alone – like the police station, the library and other city buildings – has incurred roughly $50-70 million in damage. Many of those structures have yet to be fully repaired. As for the city as a whole, Bujan estimates up to $1 billion in damage. The Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas reports that as of late July, more than $170 million of state and federal money has been provided to residents of Nueces County, where Port Aransas is located. City leaders are banking on support from tourists to speed up their recovery process. And that’s where their rebuilding focus has been right now.
“We’re adjusting those areas that are important to us in terms of our economy. We’re working on our harbor, our beach is in excellent, slick shape, we’re getting very good crowds,” Bujan says.
On a sunny and hot day in early August, dozens of people line a Port Aransas beachhead – they’re laughing and having a great time; swimming, fishing, feeding seagulls and burying each other in the sand. Mike Montoya, of New Mexico, has traveled with his family to Port Aransas for several years. He says he loves the warm, Gulf Coast waters – and the people.
“This place is so laid back… and the people are super nice. Everybody gets along. That’s what keeps bringing us back,” Montoya says.
Rhonda Wilhelm and her family are from Austin. They’ve been coming to Port Aransas for 17 years to mark her sons’ birthdays.
“We come here every year for their birthday. We have twins… one’s out there fishing and one’s right here. We wanted to come and support Port Aransas… so we were gonna come out regardless,” Wilhelm says.
A number of condos and rental homes in Port Aransas remain out of commission. But most of the shops and businesses in the town have reopened since the storm hit. Mayor Bujan thinks many of the visitors this summer have been day-trippers.