‘We thought we were all going to die:’ Port Aransas still locked down

A couple hours after the sun rose Sunday, Melani Zurawski and Kathy Neihart burst into the Port Aransas Civic Center, the town’s base of emergency operations.

The pair had spent the last 48 hours in a Port Aransas that was no longer recognizable. Wearing little more than t-shirts, shorts and crocs, they had sidestepped downed power lines, the twisted remains of homes and businesses and wounded boats that had been flung hundreds of feet by Hurricane Harvey’s furious winds.

They were exhausted, hungry, in need of coffee and communication with loved ones.

Murawski, who moved to Port Aransas from Lake Travis eight years ago, asked to use a Statesman photographer’s cell phone. It was her first contact with the outside world since Hurricane Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 monster just north of Port Aransas, leaving some parts of the beach resort in ruins.

“It’s, it’s bad,” she said between sobs. “Can you call my mom and let her know we’re ok? Everything is gone but we made it through.”

The women were among dozens of Port Aransas residents that stayed behind and rode out the storm as best they could. At many points that night, Zurawski said she was sure it would be her last. As the worst of Harvey’s winds raged, Zurawski, her husband and two friends cut up bed sheets to tie themselves together. “We tied it so people could find us afterward,” she said.

But many residents who stayed behind emerged from shattered dwellings, or were found by rescue personnel, said they haven’t received the help they need.

Murawski and Neihart said they were soon told to leave the emergency operations center, which was receiving rescue personnel from a number of surrounding cities. “We went there for help and they told us, ‘You should have gotten off the island.’” she said. “There aren’t buses off the island. They wouldn’t even give us coffee.”

Sgt. Scott Burroughs of the Port Aransas Police Department said that officials weren’t equipped to give survivors all the help they needed. “Port Aransas is an island and we don’t have a lot of resources that (a larger city has),” he said. “One thing we don’t have is a shelter.”

Burroughs said city officials have requested aid and supplies to help the survivors. “How can we provide for people in town when we aren’t fully provided for ourselves yet?” he said.

Officials say the vast majority of residents heeded evacuation calls ahead of Harvey, which they credit for the fact that no deaths or serious injuries have been reported on the island.

Residents not allowed back in

On Sunday, Port Aransas police kept a strict control on the battered city, requiring police escorts for media and prohibiting residents from returning to check on their homes.

By early afternoon, a long line of cars had formed at a police checkpoint at the edge of the city, and frustrated homeowners were turned back.

John Schuler said he drove about four hours from Austin to check on his weekend home, but was not allowed in the city. “There’s not much we can do he said,” adding that he is glad police aren’t letting potential looters in Port Aransas.

Schuler said his home, which he would normally be visiting over Labor Day, sits on stilts that he hopes saved it from major damage.

City Manager Dave Parsons wrote on Facebook that “our primary objective is to at least get folks back in here to check on their homes.” He said emergency personnel first had to deal with gas leaks and impassable streets.

Property destruction in Port Aransas was catastrophic, but varied by location and structure type. Ruined boats, flung by Harvey’s 140 mile per hour winds, lay scattered throughout the town, and many trailer homes were flipped and ripped apart. And while many buildings were shredded by the hurricane, some homes and businesses, especially those of more recent construction and buildings made of metal or cement appeared somewhat intact.

The wooden barn where Zurawski and her husband lived with their three dogs and where they hunkered down during the storm, was ripped apart by Harvey.

Several residents who didn’t evacuate said it was difficult for those without transportation or close by friends and family, or money for hotels or for an extended time away from home. Murawski said she also worried about leaving her pets behind.

“If you don’t have a place to go and no money when you get there, what are you going to do?”

We thought it was going to take everything

Zurawski and her husband, who lived on the bottom floor of a barn that had been converted into rental units, left their apartment Friday night as water started pouring in. The couple ran to the upstairs apartment, but as the winds howled, the barn’s wall ripped away with a monstrous crash.

“Once that wall went down we thought (the hurricane) was gonna take everything,” she said. Ceiling panels and insulation fell from the ceiling. “We thought we were all going to die.”

At one point, Zurawski waved the last wan light from a dying flashlight into the dark street to “let someone know maybe that we were here.”

The next day, Neihart, who lives across the street, approached the barn and hollered to see if anyone was alive. “She was the first voice I heard,” she said. “I screamed back, ‘We’re here!”

Slowly the town’s survivors managed to find each other, walking stunned through their ruined town. When bottles began floating away from nearby Snappy’s Liquor Store, whose top half was blown off in the storm, they drank, which helped make the unimaginable situation tolerable.

With no buses yet planned to take the 100 or so survivors off the island, several began combining food supplies and bringing them to the home of Robert Ramsey, whose house on stilts remained intact. “We’re locals,” Ramsey said. “We know everybody.”

Despite the experience, Zurawski, who does landscaping work, plans to remain in Port Aransas: “We’ll rebuild.”

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