On Texas coast, Harvey-battered residents find recovery a slog

12:00 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017 Texas News & Politics
The Rockport Relief Camp provides a place to live for Hurricane Harvey victims who have nowhere else to go. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
American-Statesman Staff
Map of Aransas Pass, Rockport and Fulton

Three months after Hurricane Harvey roared over her Aransas Pass apartment, shaking the walls and dumping enough water into it to render the entire complex uninhabitable, Debrah Harmon keeps her goals for the future small. Mainly, the grandmother-to-be said, she hopes to move soon out of the tent she’s been living in for the past month and into a nearby camper.

“I’m not bringing my grandbaby into a tent,” she said. “No way in hell.”

The Rockport Relief Camp, a collection of 15 or so tents and a couple of trailers, sprung up in the days immediately after the historic storm, which barged into Texas via the small coastal communities of Fulton, Rockport and Aransas Pass.

J.P and Sam McCrary made their sprawling yard available for the encampment. Residents have built outdoor showers with hot water, dug a fire pit and stocked the “baby barn” full of diapers.

For Aransas County, the tent city distills both the good and the bad left exposed in Harvey’s wake. Disasters have a way of stripping away people’s differences, bringing out a shared humanity. “It’s more about what you’re supposed to do,” said the McCrarys’ daughter, Jennifer Horton, who helps manage the camp. “This is something that everyone experienced.”

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Debrah Harmon stands outside her tent at the Rockport Relief Camp on Tuesday November 21, 2017. Harmon has been living in the tent with her daughter Dawn Kupcho, 24, who is eight months pregnant, in the camp with other people who have nowhere else to go three months after Hurricane Harvey destroyed their homes. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Yet nearly 100 days after the storm hit, roughly 30 people still call the tent city home. They, and other coastal residents, are learning that recovery is not a simple destination, but a slow grind, marked by delays, discomfort and frustration.

“You deal with it day by day,” said Christy Combs, who, with her husband and four children, has called the camp home for two months. “It’s either this or you live in your truck.” The family recently upgraded from a tent to an RV.

“I feel like the news has forgotten we’re here,” Horton said.

Fulton Mayor Jimmy Kendrick said, “We’re the first one hit, and we’re the first one forgotten.”

Harvey’s trail of destruction is easy to trace here. Blue tarps drape over roofs; piles of debris spill from porches, parking lots and curbsides. Mailboxes tilt at odd angles. Three historical markers remain missing, including the one commemorating the Port Bay Hunting and Fishing Club.

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Houses in Holiday Beach on Tuesday November 21, 2017, that were damaged by Hurricane Harvey. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

While Houston’s social fabric might have experienced a million cuts, in Rockport, Fulton, Aransas Pass and the other tiny communities where Hurricane Harvey hit first, the rips run longer and deeper. Little was left undamaged by the terrible winds and record rain, and the storm’s imprint can still be observed on nearly every facet of community life.

Last week, the Texas Historical Commission gave its reluctant permission to raze the Aransas County courthouse, built in 1956 of brick and steel, but rendered unsalvageable by the hurricane. Legal proceedings have been moved to the AC Motorsports building. They’ll relocate again to the empty old Ace Hardware store while a new courthouse is constructed.

The schools here also are still nursing a lingering Harvey hangover. Earlier this month, a survey of local households showed that about 97 percent of students fell into the state’s definition of homeless.

Aransas County school Superintendent Joey Patek said enrollment is still down about 700 students across the district’s five schools — a fifth of its 3,300 total enrollment. On Church Street, Sacred Heart School remains closed. It’s not only the kids who’ve left empty desks, either; Michael Hannum, the Catholic school’s middle school principal, said three of his teachers were forced to abandon the community after their homes were destroyed.

Businesses, too, are struggling to regain their footing. Of the roughly 1,300 storefront businesses in the area, fewer than 400 have reopened. “So we’re about 900 short,” said Diane Probst, president of the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce. Put another way, 70 percent of the county’s businesses remain offline.

Some owners await insurance checks to start rebuilding. Many still face uncertain futures, however. Thanks to the lengthy period since the area’s last big hurricane, nearly a half-century ago, Probst said a lot of business owners purchased insurance policies with high deductibles, laying a losing wager that their weather winning streak would hold.

“With us not being a target all these years, they maybe thought it wouldn’t happen again,” Probst said. Now they face staggering out-of-pocket expenses.

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The Cove Harbor Marina & Drystack in Rockport on Tuesday November 21, 2017, three months after Hurricane Harvey. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

On Texas 35, the coastal highway between Rockport and Aransas Pass, the Cove Harbor Marina and Drystack storage building remains a frozen tableau of the hurricane’s fierce power, and its grinding bureaucratic response. Sheared metal sides reveal hundreds of boats tumbled on top of each other, a giant Jenga puzzle that structural engineers — and an estimated two dozen separate insurance companies — are still untangling.

In Fulton, Mayor Kendrick said repairs to the small civic center have snagged over discussions of damage that seem like an infuriating cosmic puzzle: If the wind blows the roof off a building and rain pours in, is wind or water to blame for the warped wood floor? The answer determines which insurance coverage pays for repairs. In the meantime, the city must find money to repay deposits put down by families who’d reserved the building for future weddings, reunions, quinceñeras.

For those enterprises that have managed to reopen, more challenges lie ahead. Across the county, Probst said, a half-dozen low-cost apartment complexes were destroyed, displacing much of the area’s service industry labor force of clerks, servers and maids, leaving behind a severe worker shortage. Nearly everyone fears the winter tourism season will be the slowest in memory.

As with many destructive natural disasters, housing remains the biggest obstacle in the area’s recovery. In Rockport, a quarter of the population lost their homes. “All of my apartment buildings and condos have been damaged to the point where they are uninhabitable,” Mayor Charles Wax said.

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Tattered flags in Rockport on Tuesday November 21, 2017, three months after Hurricane Harvey. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

In Ingleside, residents of all 200 units of the Downtown Ingleside Apartments had to move due to water damage; the town also lost two hotels. “There was a housing shortage before the hurricane,” said Chris Kehl, a contractor assisting the town with its recovery.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it has distributed vouchers to about 350 households in Aransas County, which are good for the cost of hotel or motel rooms. The problem is finding one. The agency’s map directing Rockport and Fulton residents to participating hotels shows three facilities.

Two, however, are closed. “We’ll open in June, hopefully,” said a woman answering the phone at one of them, Laguna Reef.

“I would say the region is hotel challenged,” said Mike Koerner, Aransas County’s director of long-term recovery. He estimates that of the area’s 1,700 rooms, only 200 to 300 are livable. Many of those have been snapped up by contracting companies pouring in, drawn by the limitless rebuilding work.

As the next step in the disaster recovery continuum, FEMA and its on-the-ground agent, the Texas General Land Office, have started delivering mobile homes and RVs to homeless residents. The RVs are locked into place, an adjustment FEMA made after observing Katrina trailers tailgating at football games. Peter Phillips, director of the state land office’s community development and revitalization department, said his agency was fast out of the gate, placing its first trailer in early October.

Along the coast, however, residents say their shelters have been slow to arrive. “To this day, nothing, nothing, nothing,” said Rene Ramos, whose mobile home was flattened in the storm. He was promised a trailer weeks ago, he said, but has been forced to sleep on a friend’s couch.

“I don’t understand,” he said. “We pay taxes. We’re not asking for much.”

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Hurricane Harvey victim Florence Kleis takes some donated food and other items at the Rockport Relief Camp on Tuesday November 21, 2017. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

“It’s not a cookie-cutter process,” Phillips explained. Sites must clear environmental and historical assessments, and residents are responsible for arranging for utilities. He said new shelters are now coming online daily; nearly four dozen have been placed, with more headed toward the coast.

The temporary structures are good for 18 months — long enough, officials hope, for residents to move into permanent housing. To John Henneberger, though, the whole rebuilding system amounts to a second disaster, a slow-motion waste of time and money.

As the co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, Henneberger earned a so-called MacArthur genius grant in part for developing a disaster-recovery system to get displaced residents into permanent homes in weeks rather than months. Instead of spending a fortune on hotel vouchers — FEMA reports $186.5 million as of last week — he developed simple houses whose core components, such as a kitchen and bathroom, could be placed quickly. Other rooms are added over time, dispensing with the need for any transitional housing.

“This process is just obscenely long,” he said of the current procedures. “There is no excuse for us acting like this again. We all knew disaster was going to happen again. We are right back where we have been in every previous disaster, without a plan and without a clue.”

Even with the best of plans, however, Gulf towns face unique obstacles. Owners of vacation houses are ineligible for some recovery programs. Other houses were build decades ago, before wind and flooding structural standards arrived on the Texas coast. The newer codes mean replacing the homes will be considerably more expensive.

People go to the coast seeking restoration. There is something about the flat light and endless skies of the Texas coast that is reassuring and hopeful.

In Rockport, city officials have issued more than 1,300 building permits in September and October. Building inspectors have clocked more than 500 inspections. Probst, the chamber of commerce president, notes that two new businesses have opened, including a furniture store built from scratch.

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Hurricane Harvey victim Hannah Combs, 9, plays at the Rockport Relief Camp on Tuesday November 21, 2017. She lives with her parents and three siblings in a donated trailer at the camp three months after the hurricane destroyed their home. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

At Sacred Heart, school administrators have ordered modular buildings with high hopes they will be ready for students next semester. “We are praying that they arrive, per the contract, early December,” the Rev. Ray Yrlas Jr. wrote in an online message.

Over at Aransas County public schools, Superintendent Patek also tilts toward optimism. Thanks to the missing students, “Teacher-pupil ratios are really good right now,” he said. While he knows some students might never return, he’s confident most will. Probst said the schools have even enrolled new students, children of contractors rebuilding the area who sense the many charms of small-town coastal living, beneath the debris piles still lining the road.

Besides, Patek said, he doesn’t have time to focus on the past. About 300 of his students missed six weeks of school after the storm, and they must race to catch up. He is determined that those scheduled to graduate this year will walk away with diplomas.

“We’ll get them across the stage,” he said.

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