A message from Rockport, Texas, six months after Hurricane Harvey: Don’t forget who the hurricane hit first, and please don’t forget the help we still need.
Earlier this month, on a return visit to ground zero of Hurricane Harvey, a woman named Patty Chavez walked up to us and asked if we were in town to help. She said it had been months since she’d seen a news crew and she was beginning to think the rest of Texas had forgotten her town completely.
"I was shocked. I was shocked. I was floored,” she said of the remains of her home on Copano Cove, north of Rockport was first able to return a few days after the hurricane. The storm surge from the hurricane brought two feet of water inside the home she and her husband built. The roof and a detached garage were ripped away.
And six months later, still with no electricity to the home and little help from FEMA or other agencies, the house sits vacant. She and her husband now live in a trailer. And next door, on properties that range from partly demolished homes to now completely vacant lots, some of her neighbors have chosen not to come back at all.
"This was our dream,” Chavez said. “And we want to move back in. We worked so hard to be where we were, you know."
Her words and her experience are echoed and repeated throughout Rockport, Fulton and Aransas County, where the debris of homes, businesses, and pieces of people's lives, are still being piled up at the curb. Several apartment buildings are still splintered, partly covered with tattered blue tarps and sit vacant, while on some properties crushed cars still sit right where they did the morning after the storm. At this point in the recovery, only an estimated 30 percent of Rockport/Fulton hotels, condos and rental homes have reopened.
"Basically our lives have been turned upside down,” said Diane Probst, president of the Rockport/Fulton Chamber of Commerce.
Even at the Chamber of Commerce, where the goal, always, is to accentuate the positive, they admit the problem is still severe. Eight city and county buildings were either destroyed or are scheduled to be demolished, including the courthouse. Scores of buildings still wait for insurance adjusters to green-light repairs. And locals often talk about the problem of a national news focus that quickly followed Hurricane Harvey somewhere else.
"So all of that has compounded the disaster for us,” said Probst.
So, six months later, what the Chamber of Commerce president needs most is you, and the tourist dollars your trip would bring.
"If one person could invite one family and come on down for a day trip that would help us tremendously,” said Probst.
A motion seconded by the Rockport Mayor, who admits full recovery could take three to five years. "I tell you what we need,” said mayor C.J. Wax. “We need money, manpower, and material...those three things."
In Rockport and Fulton, the Chamber of Commerce estimates 1,300 business were knocked out of commission by the storm. Six months later, only about 500 have recovered enough to reopen. And each time one does reopen, the Chamber gives each its own grand-reopening ribbon-cutting and celebration. And at the time of our visit, Ramona Day was hoping to be next.
"And we did not get electricity to this building until November,” Day said of her restaurant Latitude in the heart of Rockport next to the marina. The hurricane peeled back her roof, tossed roof-top kitchen vents into the street, and tore out an entire back wall. But, with a staff of 19 and construction workers finishing the final repairs, she hoped to be open again by the end of the month.
"I have all the confidence that we're going to come back,” she said. “I know that we're going to survive this.”
Even in her third month of living in an RV in the driveway of her heavily damaged Rockport home, Marilou Saralla offered the same optimism. Even though she is one of many who thinks the rest of Texas forgot about Rockport.
"I know they did. You don't hear about Rockport on TV,” she said. Her home, heavily damaged by the storm, still waits for a structural engineer to determine if it can be repaired.
“But you’ve gotta have hope,” she said. “I mean because this is where I want to live. I don't want to give up. Which there is lot of people giving up. I know eventually, it will be back. Just can we stand it until then?"
"I want everyone to know that we're coming back,” said Probst. “And not only that we're coming back, but we're coming back strong. We're coming back better than ever. You can bet your bottom dollar on that."
"The city of Rockport, Fulton, Aransas County is open for business,” added Mayor Wax. “Come on down and visit with us. We may not be at the level of service we have been before. But we'll get there.”
As for hurricane survivors like Patti Chavez, and there are hundreds just like her in Aransas County, she didn't have insurance. She says FEMA only offered $14,000 to compensate for tearing down and rebuilding the home she and her husband took 24 years to build the first time.
"I don't know whether it's the government or private sector, we need help. Because there are a lot of people in this town that need help,” Chavez said.
All she asks is that you don't forget who Harvey hit first, and these six months later, the help they still need.
"There's a lot of work to be done in this town, still," she said.