Ripped apart by Hurricane Harvey, this Texas community needs tourists to come back
ROCKPORT, Texas — It's been five months since Hurricane Harvey roared through Texas. Yet when you drive into this coastal town, the damage is still stark.
Mountains of debris — tree branches intertwined with metal sheeting, and what used to be the roofs and walls of homes — are piled in the highway median waiting to be incinerated or hauled away.
Handwritten signs advertise home repair services. Trucks with the words "disaster response" written on their sides fill the roads.
Businesses are still shuttered, their windows boarded up. Shingles are missing from what seems like every other roof, covered instead with plastic.
Rockport, Texas, is one of the coastal cities hit hardest by Hurricane Harvey when it made landfall five months ago. Unlike Houston, which was drenched in record-breaking floods, most of the devastation here was caused by the storm's 130 mph winds.
Only about 10,000 people live in the area year-round, but they sustained disproportionate damage.
So far, 2.5 million cubic yards of debris caused by Hurricane Harvey have been removed from Rockport. That's one-fourth of all the hurricane debris in the state. By comparison, Houston, a city 216 times Rockport's size, cleared 3 million cubic yards of debris. There's still more to clear in Rockport, but it's hard to tell exactly how much that will be.
Local officials estimate it will take three to five years to get back to normal. In an economy that gets 90 percent of its revenue from tourism, many business said they aren't sure they'll make it.
Shuttered 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, the INN at Fulton Harbor, saw the worst of it. The wind tore off parts of the roof and the subsequent rain ruined the carpets and nearly all the furniture.
"The hotel was completely and totally trashed inside," Griffin said.
He was lucky. He had savings and was able to make repairs relatively quickly. Griffin reopened the hotel four days before Christmas. Now just a third of the rooms he typically fills this time of year are occupied.
He is still waiting on the insurance company to pay out his full claim.
About 460 of 1,300 pre-Harvey businesses have reopened, according to the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce. Many others are struggling to get back up and running before 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 torn down.
As a result, the city estimates its sales tax revenue will drop 40 percent in the next year. Property tax could decline another 26 percent. That would leave the city with an annual $2 million shortfall — an amount that could be a rounding error for in a major city, but accounts for nearly a quarter of Rockport's annual budget.
Rockport Mayor C.J. Wax said he is asking state and federal lawmakers for about $5 million to cover that gap over the next three years.
"I think I'm being 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 coastal communities threatened by hurricanes, has lowballed business and homeowners.
"It is absolutely not TWIA's intent to lowball customers," said Jennifer Armstrong, the TWIA vice president of communications and legislative affairs. "We want to make sure a customer has a quick and accurate settlement."
Armstrong said damage is often discovered months after a disaster or rebuilding costs are higher than initially thought because of surge pricing. In those cases, homeowners and business owners should contact TWIA and it will re-evaluate their insurance claim.
As for Griffin, he expects he will only make about half of the profit he normally does, but he is hopeful the region will return.
"If you face the water, the fish, the birds, the beaches, they're all still here, and that's why people came here," he said.
Rebuilding one home at a time
In the waterfront community of Key Allegro, the view of the ocean is still as gorgeous as ever, but look another direction and nearly all of the homes show signs of major damage.
Concrete foundations are all that are left of some homes that had to be torn down. Others are only skeletons of the houses they once were. The walls are ripped off, leaving only moldy furniture beneath collapsed roofs.
In a building with a makeshift sign offering Hurricane Harvey information sits Parkie Luce, the owner of a realty company and, as one resident endearingly called her, the "queen of Key Allegro." A petite woman with long, curly, graying hair, Luce is trying to provide help to anyone who walks in the door.
She has lived in this community 37 years and says this storm was unlike any she had seen. Her own house suffered broken windows and a damaged door and carpets, but she counts herself lucky compared to some of her neighbors.
"One of the things we've learned is that we can get by with a lot less and that just each day is a blessing," Luce said.
Only 20 percent of this community lives here full time. The rest are vacation or rental homes, but these properties are major contributors to the local economy.
A few residents have decided to sell their homes, Luce said, and she is hoping people are not scared off by the threat of another storm.
She said they shouldn't be. Across the city, newer homes that were built in the last five to 10 years sustained substantially less damage than older homes. City leaders say that's proof updated building codes worked and will make any newly constructed buildings more impervious to future storms.
What might take longer is restoring Rockport's rental properties. All of the city's apartment complexes were damaged in the storm, many of them to the point where they are now unlivable.
As a result, rents have spiked, forcing residents to cram two or three families in a single living space. Others are in makeshift housing.
"This is our new normal," said Christy Combs as she stood outside a beige RV 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 is staying in this donated vehicle on someone else's property. Immediately after the storm, the property became a relief camp, where survivors could get donated goods and set up tents if they needed a place to sleep.
Combs hopes to get back to work this spring when the storm-damaged restaurant that employed her and her husband reopens. After that, she hopes they can save up enough money to buy property of their own. They'll likely stay in the RV for the foreseeable future.
"No matter what it takes, we have to keep going," she said. "You have to adjust. You have no 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 begins to set, bringing a slight chill into what was a balmy, 65-degree January day.
They are what some call "snowbirds" or here in Rockport "winter Texans," people who drive their RVs down from the North to escape the cold.
The chamber of commerce estimates fewer than half as many people made the trip south this year as in a typical year. The lack of restaurants and a usable golf course pushed them to other destinations.
The opposite was true for the group at the Sandollar. They hail from from Wisconsin, Colorado, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Ontario. When they heard about the storm wrecking the Texas coast, they were even more resolved to come back.
"If people don't come back, that would be another kick in the teeth, and Rockport doesn't need that," Pam Paczkowski from Barrie, Ontario, said.
"We owe it to this community to come," said Rick Jensen, who has driven down to Sandollar from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, for the past six years.
When asked why they keep coming back, the answer was unanimous. "The people. The community."
Despite the work that still needs to be done, Rockport residents say they have come a long way and are not about to stop now.
The city is exploring ways to rebuild itself even better, using state, federal and private dollars to develop new projects on its main streets and near the waterfront that will attract more tourists. Already, new construction must meet new higher standards that would better protect the buildings from wind.
When asked if the city can successfully market itself even now with windows boarded up and debris lining the streets, Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce President Diane Probst responds defiantly.
"Are we coming back? Hell yeah. You just watch and see."