Rockport Bounces Back After Harvey, But Many People And Businesses Remain Displaced

“We have a very affluent community in some areas … and then we have the ‘have nots,’ the service workers that live in our community that are struggling.”

By David BrownAugust 20, 2018 1:23 pm,

On the night of August 25 2017, a Category 4 storm made landfall here, a storm that would change Texas and the lives of Texans in ways almost impossible to count.

As you may recall, as Hurricane Harvey hit the fourth largest city in the nation, the country’s focus turned to epic rainfall in Houston. It caused the most disastrous flooding in U.S. history, according to a report issued by Harris County back in June. Statewide, 68 people were killed in the storm.

Texas Standard reported from the Texas Gulf Coast during Harvey, watching the rescues and the rescue attempts as the rain continued to fall. And in the days, weeks and months since Harvey, the focus has largely remained on Houston. In Rockport, it wasn’t the rain – it was the wind. And it left this tourist town looking like a war zone.

A year later, Karl Hielscher of the Rockport Yacht Club looks out at some 50 or so small sailboats, deep in the Aransas Bay. It’s a junior sailing regatta..which almost didn’t happen this year.  

“Many of the volunteers who are hosting this for us – retired and semi-retired folks that live here – still don’t have their homes put back together,” Hielscher says. “And they still wanted to put this on for the youth.”

Hielscher says the community takes a defiant attitude toward the storm. This weekend, they’ll host a “Welcome Back Harvey” party.

There are many reasons to celebrate in Rockport – at least for some. After Harvey, Rockport schools were closed and students were sent to neighboring districts. On Wednesday schools will reopen for the new year, albeit with fewer kids. And the high school gymnasium flattened by Harvey yet to be rebuilt.

Courtesy, City of Rockport

At a local a farmer’s market on Sunday, the local VFW post was selling raffle tickets. For $10 you got a chance win a kayak, or a guitar signed by George Strait, who may or may not have a house just across the bay.

After Post 3904 was reduced to twisted metal by Harvey’s winds, Mike Kurtz, a 22-year veteran of the Navy and a member of the post, crawled into the rubble to retrieve the charter, and a few precious flags. The raffle is to help rebuild the post – at an estimated cost of $400,000.  

“The community is behind us 100 percent,” Kurtz says “but they’re all hurting as bad as we are.”

You don’t have to scratch the surface very much to find that a very deep fault line has developed in Rockport. On one hand, there are places like the spectacular Texas Maritime Museum, which closed temporarily after weeks of power outages. But the building itself sustained little damage.  As museum curator Cassidy Mickelson says *they got lucky.”

“Unfortunately, a lot of our attractions right now are struggling to reopen and regain that footing with tourists,” she says.

The aquarium, Rockport Art Center and Fulton Mansion are among them.

Mickelson says she’s committed the museum, and though she thought of moving away, she’s attached to the institution.

“People have already lost so much,” she says. “If you abandon your post… What does that say about you?”

Mickelson says the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce has done good work in letting tourists know that Rockport is open for business.

“Another piece of it is that our hotels aren’t back.” she says.

Some estimates say 40 percent of the hotels here before Harvey have reopened along this stretch of the Gulf Coast. In Rockport that feels optimistic. What about all those hotel workers?  What about all those gaps along the main drag where there used to be gift shops and restaurants? Where did their employees go?

We hear stories of people still living in garages – of people living in the woods out of town, though we don’t see any of this. But what we do see are the open scars of so many homes along the side roads, interior staircases open to the elements, the blue tarp waving from an apartment complex or hotel. Those sights are common enough to serve as a regional flag.

And yet, along the waterfronts and the gently curving coastal arteries, there are well-manicured lawns and the sounds of seagulls drowned out by the cicadas.

Down the road, where an iconic photograph of the damage here in Rockport was taken one year ago – a photo showing piles and piles of boats tumbled atop one another – two giant metal monoliths now stand. Each looks nearly tall and long enough to house a rocket.

Rhonda Fanning

The Rockport VFW post raises money to rebuild the building that was destroyed by Harvey.

Mike Donoho is director of building and development for the City of Rockport. It’s clear he’s proud of this new four-story, two-building drydock. t’s a symbol of Rockport’s comeback.  But Donoho acknowledge this is only half of the story.

“You know we have a very affluent community in some areas,” Donoho says. “…and then we have the ‘have nots,’ the service workers that live in our community that are struggling. And we have lifelong residents that are struggling with the system – working through insurance adjustments, and FEMA and TWIA. And it’s difficult.”

The haves, Donoho says, know the ropes, the available grants, the documents that need to be filed and when. they’re doing well. The service workers who don’t know how to navigate the system are not. Since Harvey, many have lost not just their jobs, but their homes.

“There’s been a big push in the local community for affordable housing. Most of our multi-family dwellings, the apartment complexes, were destroyed by the storm.”

In the brightly repainted harbor area, there are a few people secretly living in their cars. One woman, who asked not to be identified, explained that after Harvey, she fled to relatives in the panhandle. She finally pulled into town last week, but can’t make the drive that final mile to where she once lived. She said that after all she’s been through, she’s not sure that she could take it if her home had been bulldozed away, as she fears it has. But she can’t stay here parked at the harbor much longer.  

Just around the corner where the harbor meets the historic district, in a bright beachfront blue that instantly makes you feel like you’re on vacation. The seashell shop is the oldest running gift store in Rockport – established in 1946.  

Debora James sells seashells by the sea shore – or at least close to it. She grew up here and remembers coming to the store as a child, playing with the toy boats under the window, and sifting thru the tiny shells in tidy wicker baskets along the wall. Nineteen years ago, she took over the shop, and then came Harvey.

“if you go down to the other end of the street, and you walk out those doors, it looks normal. But down here, it’s not. We’ve lost nine businesses on this end,” James says.

And yet each day Deborah concedes, there continue to be reasons to be hopeful.  

Before Harvey wiped out the landscaping outside the seashell shop, there used to be succulents out front – tourists would take clippings to start their own plants back home.  

The other day, Debora James received a box in the mail from an old customer to celebrate deborah’s return to business. Inside were little plastic bags with folded paper towels. Deborah unfolded the paper towels, and found seedlings – the descendants of those original succulents from out front. She takes it as a sign that things are coming back, here in the heart of Rockport.