Surviving the storm was just the beginning.
Ten months after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, residents in the rural coastal county of Refugio have made little progress in their effort to recover from the most devastating storm in state history.
Much of the wreckage brought by Harvey’s 130 mph winds and torrential rainfall lingers throughout the 818-square-mile county; blue tarps serve as placeholders for roofs while mounds of debris and toppled trees sit uncollected. More than half of the structures in the county were damaged or destroyed by the category 4 hurricane, and countless are still in disrepair.
“We didn’t budget for a hurricane,” said Wanda Dukes, mayor of the city of Refugio, about 20 miles from the coast. “If a lot of people don’t have insurance, they’re just kind of out of luck except for the volunteers coming in helping us.”
While nearby beach destinations like Port Aransas have largely rebuilt and reopened for business, small towns like Refugio — population 2,890 and falling — have lacked the resources to recover. Residents and officials alike have struggled to obtain financial assistance, and available labor in the region is scarce.
Many Refugio residents have weathered the slow rebuilding and remain in town. Others have been pushed to outlying communities while their houses are restored. Some had no choice but to abandon their ruined homes and move away.
For those working to rebuild the storm-struck region, the return of hurricane season brings a familiar unease. Forecasters from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season will be normal to above average, with a 70 percent chance that five to nine storms will develop into hurricanes.
As officials fine-tune their disaster response plans, residents worry their still-damaged homes won’t withstand another storm.
“I don’t think we could stomach one back to back before we get these (repairs) done,” said 54-year-old Noal Shaw, whose Refugio home was rendered uninhabitable by the storm. Harvey’s winds peeled the roof off Shaw’s sprawling 6,300-square-foot house while the storm’s rain rotted it from the inside out.
Along with his wife and three kids, Shaw is living in a three-bedroom apartment in Portland, 35 miles away. Despite stalls in reconstruction, the family hopes to return to Refugio by the end of the summer.
On a recent muggy Tuesday afternoon, Shaw returned to his home and surveyed the construction progress. The interior has been thoroughly gutted, the backyard filled with lumber and debris.
“It’s hard looking at it this way,” he said.
Shaw recently paid about $62,000 for a new roof, which he said a contractor botched and refused to refund.
He estimates the full rebuild will cost about $365,000, though he added that his coverage through the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association — which offers last-resort wind and hail insurance for coastal Texans who can’t otherwise afford it — might cover all but $35,000.
“It’s just been … a nightmare,” Shaw said. “Without (TWIA), I don’t know what I would have done … with my home. I probably would have had to just walk away from it.”
Few resources to rebuild
Joel Garcia and his wife and mother-in-law rode out Hurricane Harvey in their Refugio home. When the storm arrived, its howling gusts burst through the front door, shattered windows and tore through the roof.
Garcia, a pastor at Refugio’s Joy Ministries Outreach Inc., was supporting two kids in college and had not purchased storm insurance. His home sustained about $25,000 in damages, so he turned to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The disaster relief agency provided him $3,000, forcing him to pay for most repairs out of pocket. Garcia is among roughly 20 percent of residents in the county of 7,300 who obtained FEMA money for home repairs. Eligible residents received an average of $3,420, according to FEMA.
“(Residents) are relying on volunteers to provide the materials and to provide the labor,” said Dorey Williams, director of the Refugio County Volunteer Reception Center, which opened after the storm.
The center operates out of an office in the First Presbyterian Church in Refugio, where Williams helps connect residents needing repairs with volunteers visiting town. Hundreds of multicolored sticky notes adorn a wall in the office; scrawled on each are residents’ names, addresses, contact information and requested repairs. Roofing, drywall, siding and flooring are among the most common needs.
In the months after Harvey, Williams said groups of volunteers could be spotted throughout the county. Their presence has dwindled ever since.
“We have tons of work that still needs to be done, and very few volunteers that can do the work,” Williams said. More money is needed to pay skilled laborers who can level shifted foundations and repair or replace roofs.
Refugio officials also are counting on assistance to repair rundown facilities. The town’s volunteer fire station, for example, has been without a roof since the storm.
But 10 months after Harvey, FEMA is still inspecting the facilities. Some have expressed frustration over the pace of the agency’s process.
“Why does this have to take so long?” Refugio County Emergency Management Coordinator Stan Upton said. “A lot of stuff that FEMA did post-event was (really) good. They came in and they set up everything and … started the process. It’s their process that really needs to be reworked, re-evaluated and fixed.”
FEMA said in a statement that the agency is moving ahead on schedule with site inspections.
“FEMA is continuing with Refugio County project site inspections as requested and directed by the county,” the statement said. “In fact, one project regarding the reimbursement of building contents of the Refugio County Memorial Hospital is in final FEMA review. Each project proceeds through the process in accordance with its particular set of demands.”
Mayor Dukes said the city is updating its insurance policy to cover future storm damage and make repairs more quickly. The change is among those officials are making as this year’s hurricane season ramps up.
A lasting impact
On a recent Tuesday morning, Dukes met with city and county leaders and emergency personnel to make final adjustments to their hurricane response plans.
Though last year’s effort was largely successful, officials said they encountered some unexpected issues.
The city kept its water supply on at the request of residents until Harvey knocked the electricity out. When power was restored, Dukes said the cumulative pressure of residents’ water use caused weak spots in the pipes to leak. The pipes also had been damaged by uprooted trees.
“This time we’re going to think twice before we let the citizens decide for us,” Dukes said. “We’re going to make that decision.”
Upton called Harvey a “major learning curve,” and he said officials are now better prepared for future storms.
Still, some believe Harvey brought scars that might never quite heal.
Eleven Refugio businesses have yet to reopen, and the city’s sales tax revenue has plummeted by $25,000 since the storm.
The town also lost some of its residents whose homes were unsalvageable, though it’s unclear exactly how many. Officials have tallied 54 fewer residential water accounts, and enrollment in the Refugio school district dropped by 56 students this year.
Harvey is another hit to a town that’s seen a slow exodus since nearby oil and gas production started to ebb in the 1960s, when there were nearly twice as many residents.
“There’s going to be evidence that something happened here for a long time,” Garcia said. “We took a beating. … Refugio will never be the same.”