- By Julie Chang American-Statesman Staff
When the din of power saws and hammering had stopped, quiet filled the streets of Port Aransas on a recent warm Friday afternoon.
Just blocks from the wrecked shops, restaurants and vacation rentals, the beach, cleared of debris, was empty.
Seven weeks after the eye of Hurricane Harvey passed just north of this idyllic beach town of 4,000 residents — whose eccentric and laid-back vibe has made it a favorite vacation spot for Central Texans — there is little, other than the beach itself, to draw visitors. Most businesses are still shuttered, and the hotels that are open are mostly filled with local residents whose homes are uninhabitable.
“Our wheel rolls on five spokes — residents and homeowners, churches, our schools, our businesses and our workforce,” said Jeffrey Hentz, president of the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce and Tourist Bureau. “All five are broken, and we’re repairing those. We all need five to get healthy.”
The Category 4 storm, which crashed ashore with winds clocked at 132 mph, shredded vacation homes, hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops, crippling the economy, which is almost fully reliant on tourism.
On the main thoroughfare, Alister Street, piles of debris still sat on the curb as dump trucks made rounds to a temporary landfill residents have christened “Mt. Port A.” Workers were sweeping up broken glass blown out from all the windows that made up the front of Destination Beach & Surf, a souvenir store iconic for the large open-mouthed shark that wraps around its entrance.
About 90 percent of businesses in Port Aransas were damaged in the storm, Hentz said. The Small Business Administration has approved 41 of 244 disaster business loan requests in Nueces County, to the tune of $3.4 million. Most of the requests are from Port Aransas. The total cost of the storm to businesses is not yet determined.
The beach has been cleaned, and a handful of Port Aransas restaurants have reopened. Hentz anticipates 30 percent of businesses will reopen by Christmas and hopes 60 percent will be operating by spring break, one of the busiest times of the year for the Texas Gulf Coast.
An arduous recovery
It probably will be a year or possibly two until all Port Aransas businesses, particularly hotels, motels and other lodging, are repaired and open, Hentz said.
Philip McBride, a 75-year-old Wimberley resident who owns A Laughing Horse Lodge, doesn’t expect to start construction until nine or 12 months from now. Built in the 1940s, the hotel had withstood Hurricane Celia in 1970, but it was no match for Harvey, which peeled roofs and bricks from all 13 cottages.
Although most waterlogged mattresses, chairs, tables and debris have been removed, parts of weakened ceilings are still collapsing, especially after a heavy rainstorm.
The sky is visible from inside one of the cottages.
“Most of the roofs were lifted, and the joists were snapped. Basically imagine that Harvey did this. Whack,” said property manager Lisa McClellan, sweeping her hands upward. “And they snapped. We are rebuilding, but we can’t remodel.”
McClellan is trying to salvage pavers and redwood original to the lodge so the spirit of the cottages is retained.
McBride said it will cost him several million dollars to tear down each of the neon green, yellow, periwinkle, pink and brown flat-top cottages and rebuild from scratch.
“It’s our principal source of income, and it’s gone. It’s a huge issue for us. We’ll have to dip into capital in order to live over the next couple years,” McBride said.
McBride and his wife have been hardened to natural disasters. Their home in Wimberley was inundated with 5 feet of water in the 2015 Memorial Day flood. They lost a “lifetime of things,” he said. They finished rebuilding the interior a year ago.
Although he’s closed for business, McBride still keeps McClellan on the payroll as she uses the lodge property to run a makeshift donation site for Port Aransas residents called Heavenly Hope Center.
Timing of the hurricane
When Hurricane Harvey hit, Port Aransas was enjoying one of its most successful years ever. The busy summer season had mostly wrapped up, and revenue for the fiscal year was closing in on $600 million, on par with Galveston, which is five times the size of Port Aransas, Hentz said. The number of tourists to visit Port Aransas this year was expected to balloon to 5 million, 25 percent ahead of last year.
Because of the storm, businesses lost out on revenue from Labor Day and Beachtober Fest, a chamber initiative to boost tourism during October. Some offseason revenue typically is generated from Winter Texans, out-of-state retirees from the Midwest, but Port Aransas businesses should have a cushion to carry them to the spring, said 71-year-old Ed Wiatt, a longtime business owner.
“Smart people here understand that you have about 120 days of tourism, which means you have 240 days of no tourism and you save for that, so that’s what we’ve done,” said Wiatt, who owns Coastal Ed’s, a golf cart rental and sale company.
Ocean water flooded Wiatt’s fleet of golf carts even though he had sheltered them in covered buildings in different parts of the city before the storm. Seaweed and sand still clutters the engine compartment of some of the golf carts.
Not only will he have to replace his inventory — each golf cart costs about $10,000 — but Wiatt’s going to have to find a new storefront, likely away from his current prime location on Alister Street. The building he leases was flooded during the storm surge.
Wiatt plans to stay in Port Aransas, where he has lived since 2011, but anticipates having to scale back his business.
“My feeling is that I’m not getting any younger. Let’s throttle back,” he said. “Port A is not only a tourist destination; it’s our home. We love it here.”
Rebounding after Harvey
Austin native Martin Frannea, 49, has already reopened Irie’s Island Food, one of the handful of businesses that have resumed operating since Harvey. His house suffered relatively minor damage, so he has focused over the past few weeks on the restaurant he owns with his wife.
Frannea has been repairing the flooded building he leases while his landlord works on building a new restaurant that’s higher off the ground. Volunteers, including friends from Austin, as well as some of his remaining employees have been replacing floors and walls and repairing appliances after a foot of water seeped into the building. Frannea estimates he spent $20,000 on repairs and has lost $60,000 in potential revenue.
He wanted to reopen as quickly as possible so that he could continue paying his employees, who lost everything they had, he said. Five of his 11 employees have had to quit, partly because they couldn’t find a place to stay in town.
“The No. 1 thing was that we needed our employees to have a job,” Frannea said. “The second most important reason is that we really love seeing the community congregate there and … we wanted locals to be able to have a place to go to start to feel a little bit more normal.”
Hentz predicts most businesses will return, even if they might be in different locations on the island. A company planning a three-story restaurant is still on target to open by the end of the year, he said.
The Texas Business Association is working with local chambers of commerce to connect businesses to recovery services. Businesses affected by Harvey have until Oct. 24 to apply for low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration to repair any physical damage to property and until May 25 to apply for loans to meet their financial obligations.
“The silver lining is that people will return. It’s going to look fantastic,” Wiatt said. “The town will come back.”