Day Trips & Beyond: Twelve Weeks After Hurricane Harvey in Port Aransas
"Port A is open for business," says chamber of commerce
By Gerald E. McLeod,
7:00AM, Sat. Dec. 2, 2017
All around Port Aransas the damage from Hurricane Harvey was severe and heartbreaking. Buildings along Port A’s harbor collapsed into the water and boats were flung around like toys in a bathtub. Flood waters covered all but the highest parts of Mustang Island.
Twelve weeks after the hurricane, construction workers outnumber residents and piles of debris still line many of the streets. On the other hand, the signs of recovery are as evident as the freshly painted walls.
From his office in a temporary trailer behind the storm-damaged visitor center where he usually hangs his hat, Jeffrey Hentz, president of the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce, describes a town on the rebound.
The city offices near the ferry landing were in one of the hardest hit areas. The city lost most of its vehicles and equipment, and nearly all its buildings. The town library was a total loss. Until it reopens, the ladies of Trinity-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church have organized a temporary lending library.
It says something about the heart of the community that one of first businesses to open its doors was Shorty’s Place Bar & Grill near the waterfront. The oldest bar on the island looks no worse for wear after the Category 4 storm passed overhead.
On the beach at Mile Marker 9, the Port A Beach Lodge was also quick to reopen after the storm. The venerable hamburger stand and hotel in the dunes came through the storm with a blue FEMA tarp Band-Aid on the roof and a lot of sand pushed around the building.
Hentz says that 12 weeks after the hurricane, 90% of the town’s bars are open. At the harbor, the Back Porch Bar, a Jamaican-style watering hole is once again bathed in colored lights. Next door, the Harbor Lights Grill is churning out fried shrimp and burgers for hungry bar patrons.
At Station and Beach streets, The Gaff, a pirate-themed pizza joint and the birthplace of the belt sander races, reopened in mid-November.
A number of island’s popular restaurants have recovered enough to open their doors. Shells Pasta and Seafood and Irie’s Island Food were two of the first to reopen. Fin’s Grill and Icehouse, the Crazy Cajun, and Virginia’s on the Bay are back serving fresh seafood. Add to that Dairy Queen, Whataburger, and the Stripes convenience stores that are back in business.
The Big Blow
Although most of the island was flooded by five feet of salty water, it was the wind that was the most destructive, Hentz says. The eye of the storm made landfall north of Mustang Island at Rockport on Aug. 25 sparing the beach town a direct hit. Instead Port A got the back side of the circular storm, so the winds came from the mainland side of the island. Corpus Christi, Port Aransas’ supply center, dodged the worst of the destruction.
For four to six hours the island town was lashed by 145mph winds with gusts to 165mph. Roofs were lifted off their moorings or shredded. Aluminum siding peeled away like a banana peel. The rain fell in buckets adding to a storm surge of water that came from the bay side of the island.
Hentz says that a wind channel formed down the ship channel damaging nearly everything in town within three blocks of the water. The harbor at Roberts Point was a mess of splintered boats after the storm, but has reopened. The South Jetty, a popular fishing spot, survived relatively unscathed but a big shallow pool appeared where there used to be a sand parking lot at the base of the jetty.
Across the ship channel from Port A, San Jose Island got hit pretty hard and the beach was cut into scallop-shaped indentions. Until Woody’s Sport Center reopens, there will be no ferry service to the undeveloped island.
Fishermen report great fishing, but debris in the water make taking a boat out hazardous.
The destruction was widespread and touched every corner of the island. At the Port Aransas Nature Preserve the wind and rain cut a new 50-foot-wide channel through what was the wetlands of Charlie’s Pasture.
On the beach, the picnic shelters next to Horace Caldwell Pier are gone. The pier is closed because of possible structural damage.
Life’s a Beach
Despite all of the damage to the town, the beach is pristine with only a few visitors venturing out in the warm temperatures and sunny skies. Because the winds blew from west to east, it was the town that took the brunt of the storm’s fury.
It is Hentz’s job to accentuate the positive, but the reality of piles of debris along the streets and buildings wrapped in frayed tarps and plastic sheeting are impossible to sugar coat. He doesn’t try. His descriptions of the damage is honest, but optimistic.
In a town that relies on tourism, construction workers vastly outnumber the tourist, Hentz says. Nearly 5 million visitors a year filled the 4,000 guest rooms on the island during the peak seasons. A week before Thanksgiving only 25% of the lodging and one-third of the 60 restaurants were back in business.
Close to one-third of the 3,800 residents have returned to their homes. The public schools reopened on Oct. 16 with 80% of the students returning. Putting residents back to work in Port A is an essential step on the long road to recovery.
The University of Texas Marine Science Institute is still closed and is facing a repair bill of around $140 million, Hentz says. Most of the students and faculty have moved to the Texas A&M campus in Corpus Christi.
“Port A is going to be back,” Hentz says confidently and extends an open invitation. “Come be part of the celebration and come see what’s new.”
He says the timetable for the recovery is to have close to 50% of the businesses back by Christmas, 70% by Spring Break, and 90% by the summer.
“We’ve already come a long way in 12 weeks,” he says.
It was four days after Hurricane Harvey before the residents could get into town to assess the damage and 14 days before electricity was restored. Almost immediately the rebuilding began.
The Family Center IGA grocery store was one of the first businesses to open with essential supplies. The owner handed out bags of ice before the National Guard and FEMA arrived.
A few blocks from the grocery store, out-of-town chefs, including one from Wisconsin, and other volunteers set up Camp David in Jerry McDonald Sports Field where they served meals to thousands of cleanup volunteers and residents. A foundation established by the chamber of commerce to take cash donations has passed out more than $700,000 in small grants to help locals with essentials and to pay bills.
The owners of Coffee Waves found more than two feet of gunk, seaweed, and mud in the coffee shop and ice cream shop when they returned to the island. Before the electricity was restore the company brought a food trailer to provide free cowboy coffee and breakfast to the workers. A newly remodeled coffee shop hopes to open by Dec. 1.
Glen Shaw returned to his bicycle rental and repair shop across the street from the IGA grocery store to find a watermark four feet up the wall. His home a few blocks from the shop is on stilts, so wasn’t flooded. The roof was partially ripped off leaving only a couple of rooms dry. He had to camp on the beach for a week before authorities would allow him to return to his home.
Although he lost a lot of tools, Glen was back in business by mid-October renting bicycles to the few visitors who venture to the island. When he returned home, he brought a dozen bikes that he loaned to his neighbors as they began the recovery process.
A Second Home
On the southern edge of Port A at Beach Access Road 1A across from the airport, Executive Keys has been a popular vacation rental since the 1960s. The wind obliterated the second floor of one of the eight two-story buildings and severely wrecked another building. All of the buildings showed some damage. The majority of the staff is still reporting to work helping the individual condo owners clean up, doing routine maintenance, and keeping the lush plants surrounding the buildings alive. The manager says he hopes to reopen by July.
“For most of us who work here, this is like a second home,” says Leagh Foley as she raked dead grass from the thick carpet of St. Augustine lawn that had been soaked with seawater. “We want to get it back to the way it was as soon as we can.”
It is heartbreaking to see the devastation to the island community that has been a magical place for generations of Texans. It is heartwarming to see the recovery, although it proceeds at what must seem like a snail’s pace to residents.
Many of the homeowners and businesses are struggling with insurance companies and government red tape, Hentz says.
Right now what Port Aransas needs are visitors to help keep jobs close to home. The beach is pristine. The restaurants are not crowded, and the fishing is good. The off season has always been a great time to visit the coast.
“Port A is open for business now,” says Hentz. “Don’t cancel your plans to visit. By next spring we’ll be back and better than ever.”
Gerald McLeod has been traveling around Texas and beyond for his "Day Trips" column for more than 25 years. Keep up to date with his journeys on his archive page.