Torn apart by Hurricane Harvey, this Texas community needs tourists to come back

ROCKPORT, Texas – It has been five months since Hurricane Harvey passed through Texas. Yet when driving through this coastal town, the damage is still significant.

Mountains of debris – tree branches intertwined with metal sheets and what were once the roofs and walls of houses – are piled on the median of the freeway waiting to be incinerated or transported.

Handwritten signs advertise home repair services. Trucks with the words “disaster response” written on their sides fill the roads.

Shops are still closed, their windows boarded up. Shingles are absent from what appears to be all other roofs, covered in plastic instead.

Rockport, Texas was one of the hardest hit coastal towns by Hurricane Harvey when it made landfall five months ago. Unlike Houston, which was inundated with record flooding, most of the damage here was caused by the storm’s 130 mph winds.

Only around 10,000 people live in the area year-round, but they have suffered disproportionate damage.

So far, 2.5 million cubic meters of debris from Hurricane Harvey has been removed from Rockport. That’s a quarter of all hurricane debris in the state. In comparison, Houston, a city 216 times larger than Rockport, cleared 3 million cubic meters of debris. There’s still more to clean up in Rockport, but it’s hard to say exactly how much it will cost.

Local authorities estimate it will take three to five years to return to normal. In an economy that derives 90% of its revenue from tourism, many businesses have said they are unsure whether to make it happen.

Closed businesses mean fewer tourists, less tax revenue

Craig Griffin has lived in the Rockport area for 22 years and owns a hotel, restaurant and gift shop in the adjacent town of Fulton. All three were damaged, but his hotel, INN Fulton Harbor, suffered the worst. The wind ripped off parts of the roof and the subsequent rain ruined the carpets and almost all the furniture.

“The interior of the hotel was completely and utterly ransacked,” Griffin said.

He was lucky. He had savings and was able to make repairs fairly quickly. Griffin reopened the hotel four days before Christmas. Now only a third of the rooms it typically occupies at this time of year are occupied.

He is still waiting for the insurance company to reimburse his claim in full.

An apartment building in Rockport, Texas shows signs of major damage five months after Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the Texas coast. All apartments in the city were damaged by the storm and several remain uninhabitable. Photo by Gretchen Frazee

About 460 of the 1,300 pre-Harvey businesses have reopened, according to the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce. Many more are struggling to get back up and running ahead of next summer’s tourist season. About a quarter are not expected to reopen at all. The city’s aquarium is closed indefinitely and the area’s convention center will have to be demolished.

As a result, the city estimates its sales tax revenue will drop 40% next year. Property tax could still be reduced by 26%. That would leave the city with an annual revenue shortfall of $2 million — an amount that might be a rounding error in a big city, but accounts for nearly a quarter of Rockport’s annual budget.

Rockport Mayor CJ Wax said he’s asking state and federal lawmakers for about $5 million to cover that shortfall over the next three years.

“I think I’m heard, but I don’t have a check in hand,” Wax said.

Business leaders, including Griffin, say the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, the state-backed group that provides coverage for hurricane-threatened coastal communities, has underestimated businesses and homeowners.

“It is absolutely not TWIA’s intention to underestimate customers,” said Jennifer Armstrong, TWIA’s vice president of communications and legislative affairs. “We want to make sure a customer gets a quick and accurate settlement.”

Armstrong said damage is often discovered months after a disaster or rebuilding costs are higher than initially thought due to rising prices. In these cases, homeowners and business owners should contact TWIA and they will reevaluate their insurance claim.

As for Griffin, he expects to make only about half the profit he normally makes, but he hopes the region will come back.

“If you face the water, the fish, the birds, the beaches, they’re all still there, and that’s why people came here,” he said.

Rebuild one house at a time

In the waterfront community of Key Allegro, the ocean views are still as beautiful, but look in another direction and nearly every home shows signs of major damage.

Concrete foundations are all that remains of some houses that had to be demolished. Others are just skeletons of the homes they once were. The walls are torn away, leaving only moldy furniture under the collapsed roofs.

In a building with a makeshift sign offering information about Hurricane Harvey is Parkie Luce, owner of a real estate company and, as one resident affectionately called her, the “Queen of Key Allegro.” A petite woman with long, curly, graying hair, Luce tries to help anyone who walks through the door.

She has lived in this community for 37 years and says this storm was unlike any she had seen. Her own home suffered broken glass, damaged door and carpets, but she considers herself lucky compared to some of her neighbours.

“One of the things we’ve learned is that we can get by on a lot less and every day is a blessing,” Luce said.

Only 20% of this community lives here full time. The rest are vacation or rental homes, but these properties are major contributors to the local economy.

Christy Combs holds her grandson Brycen, 6, as her mother Amber looks on. The family is staying in a donated motorhome parked on the property of another couple who opened up their land to displaced people after Hurricane Harvey. Photo by Gretchen Frazee

A few residents have decided to sell their homes, Luce said, and she hopes people won’t be scared off by the threat of another storm.

She said they shouldn’t be. Across the city, new homes built in the last five to 10 years suffered significantly less damage than older homes. City leaders say this is proof that updated building codes have worked and will make all newly constructed buildings more impervious to future storms.

What may take longer is the restoration of Rockport’s rental properties. All of the city’s apartment complexes were damaged by the storm, many of them to the point where they are now unlivable.

As a result, rents have skyrocketed, forcing residents to cram two or three families into one living space. Others are in makeshift accommodation.

“It’s our new normal,” Christy Combs said as she stood in front of a beige motorhome that she, her husband and four children now call home.

She owns four pit bulls, which makes finding housing even more difficult, so her family stays in this donated vehicle on someone else’s property. Immediately after the storm, the property became a relief camp, where survivors could obtain donated goods and set up tents if they needed a place to sleep.

Combs hopes to return to work this spring when the storm-damaged restaurant that employed her and her husband reopens. After that, she hopes they can save enough money to buy their own property. They will likely remain in the motorhome for the foreseeable future.

“No matter what it takes, we have to keep going,” she said. ” You have to adapt. You do not have a choice.”

Can Rockport come back?

Slowly, some tourists and part-time residents are returning.

At the Sandollar RV park, a group of retirees sit in a circle of lawn chairs, drinking beer and laughing heartily. The sun is beginning to set, bringing a slight chill to what was a balmy 65 degree January day.

They’re what some call “snowbirds” or here in Rockport “winter Texans,” people who drive their motorhomes up north to escape the cold.

The Rockport Bakery reopened after Hurricane Harvey but still shows signs of damage. The Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce estimates that 460 of 1,300 businesses have reopened since Hurricane Harvey. About a quarter of businesses in the region are not expected to reopen at all. Photo by Gretchen Frazee

The Chamber of Commerce estimates less than half the number of people made the trip south this year compared to a typical year. The lack of restaurants and a usable golf course drove them to other destinations.

The reverse was true for the group at Sandollar. They come from Wisconsin, Colorado, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Ontario. When they heard about the storm that had destroyed the Texas coast, they were even more determined to return.

“If people don’t come back, it would be another kick in the teeth, and Rockport doesn’t need that,” said Pam Paczkowski of Barrie, Ont.

“We owe it to this upcoming community,” said Rick Jensen, who has traveled to Sandollar from Carlisle, Pennsylvania for the past six years.

When asked why they keep coming back, the answer was unanimous. “People. Community.”

Despite the work that remains to be done, Rockport residents say they’ve come a long way and they’re not stopping now.

The city is exploring ways to build back even better, using public, federal and private funds to develop new projects on its main streets and near the waterfront that will attract more tourists. Already, new constructions must meet new, higher standards that would better protect buildings from the wind.

When asked if the city can successfully market itself even now with shuttered windows and debris lining the streets, Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce President Diane Probst responds defiantly.

“Are we coming back? Shit yeah. Just watch and see.

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