Hope and Recovery After the Horror of Harvey

We had been watching Harvey develop all week. While I was with colleagues at a customer’s office in New Jersey on Aug. 22, my husband sent me a text with the forecast map of a tropical storm that looked like it might cause some trouble. Concerning, but it was only a tropical storm, not a hurricane, and, “Most of the time these things fizzle out and go into largely unpopulated parts of Mexico,” I told myself. As the hours passed, it was clear that was not going to happen. Harvey was looking to be an increasingly angry and belligerent guy who for some reason had decided he was going to take out his frustration on my beloved Rockport, Texas a small town I’ve been visiting since I was a young girl growing up in Corpus Christi.

My husband and I had been working on getting a place there for the last several years. We’d planned to build, but those plans fell through as the development we’d selected took a direction we didn’t like. When we scrapped those plans, we began to look at homes in more established areas of town.

Over the last two years, we have probably looked at every single home in our price range for sale in Rockport, trying to decide if we should take on a major renovation project or spend more than we were comfortable spending and buy something spectacular that had once been someone else’s dream. Finally, after years of starts and stops, we found the perfect combination in the perfect location for us, and the sale was finalized on June 23. Yes, just 63 days before Harvey came to visit.

It felt surreal, watching footage of Rockport on national or even international news. The city took a direct hit of a Category 4 hurricane, and it looked like a third-world country — a place in shambles, with lots of ripped up trailers, trashed out boats and older, modest homes that had been destroyed.

A stranger watching it might have wondered, why would anyone ever choose a vacation home in a place like that? One of the reasons we love Rockport so much is that it isn’t your typical flashy, touristy beach town. Port Aransas (which also sustained horrific damage), Galveston and South Padre Island fill that bill for those who prefer a little more commercial action and nightlife when they go to the beach.

Rockport is a quirky melting pot of fishermen, farmers, ranchers, artists, nature lovers, shrimpers, bird-watchers and families who just want to run their small businesses and get their kids to school. The rest of us go there to decompress from our busy lives in Austin, Houston, San Antonio or Dallas, or have decided to retire there after years of corporate life.

We all meld together and the result is one of the warmest, most laid-back, generous group of people of all stripes of which I’ve ever had the pleasure to be a part. As the mayor of Rockport, Charles J. Wax, said on national news the day after the storm hit, “We have residents here who can make their home anywhere in the world, and they choose to live in Rockport.” It’s an acquired taste, and not for everyone, but it is perfect for us.

We sat in my husband’s office upstairs in Austin and made it our own personal command center Friday night. We watched the storm approach and strengthen with every hourly update. We were livestreaming the local station from Corpus Christi, with Joe Gazin at the KIII anchor desk — who has been on the air there since I was a kid. His voice was a calming influence as memories of many other storms and evacuations from my youth flowed back to mind.

bigstock--203228227 - Old Poor Home relfection Flooded after Hurricane Harvey destroyed the town of Columbus , Texas southwest of Houston , Texas a Small Town Disaster easily overlooked wide angle viewMost of our friends from the area had evacuated, but a few remained to ride out the storm. One couple stayed because they have dedicated their lives to helping rescue and shelter animals and knew they would be needed desperately. Others remained in hopes of protecting their business, or because they wanted to be available immediately for others in the aftermath. We were terrified for all of them and in contact with some of them as long as cell service allowed, which ended at about 10 p.m. as the eye approached. And then we waited. And waited. And waited to hear from them. Thoughts of what had happened to our home, amazingly, seemed far away as we agonized about these people who had become such a wonderful part of our life.

Finally, later on Saturday, we started to get sporadic reports. Everyone we knew was alive and uninjured. Miraculously, the loss of life in Rockport thus far is but two residents and one AEP Texas worker who was killed as he worked among thousands of others from all over the country to restore power in the area. Any loss of life is terrible, and my thoughts and prayers go out to those families. But it could have been so many more, especially when you see the devastation firsthand.

Once we knew that our friends were safe, our thoughts then turned to this major investment we’d committed to just two months before. Pictures and videos started making the rounds on social media. We saw nothing but matchsticks and rubble and debris where our hangouts, gas stations or shops used to be. We had fully accepted that our place, right on Aransas Bay, was likely gone, never to be the sanctuary and gathering place for our friends and family we’d dreamed of for so long.

We scoured everything we could find, including friends’ photos and videos posted online, in hopes that we would catch a glimpse of our place so that at least we would know something and could then begin to act. Through a friend of a friend of a friend, a high school friend texted a random video from Facebook to me. There was a car driving down our street. The realty office where we signed the buyers agreement with our real estate agent was destroyed. Other houses on the way to our home were leveled, were missing the entire front or had their second floors just ripped away. Our neighbors’ homes, personal lives and belongings were nakedly exposed, as you could see their furnishings, children’s toys, kitchen cabinets and everything else just flapping in the wind and rain.

As the driver in the video approached our home, Dave and I held on to each other, fearing the worst. Suddenly, there was our modest but beautiful, newly painted dream! Standing tall and proud as if in defiance of all those who thought we were crazy for taking this step. As if in defiance of our own worries and fears and regrets. As if to say, “I’m still here, and if I can make it, so can you. You are meant to be a part of this community, my friends.” Because, in the few weeks since we’d bought it, this house had become just that. Our friend. We think of it as a welcoming, sacred space where we will share our dreams and our future with those closest to us.

Sure, our roof is destroyed and will have to be replaced. We have some water damage and virtually all of the renovations we’d done since we purchased the house two short months before will need to be redone. But we are far more fortunate than so many others. And even as we were trying to catch our breath and start to figure out how to move forward, our thoughts turned to so many friends and loved ones who were enduring unimaginable horrors as Houston looked to be drowning before our eyes.

Even before we could get down to Rockport safely a few days later to assess the reality of the situation for ourselves, we knew that public attention would soon go from the Coastal Bend to Houston, to the Golden Triangle, and then to Florida. (And then, as it would turn out, to Puerto Rico.) There is so much aftermath of, well, just so much.

We have had some time to assess the situation. We’ve spent all of our spare time in Rockport, and repairs are beginning for those who can repair, rebuilding for those who can rebuild. Hopefully, by the time this goes to press, the Rockport schools will have reopened and students can get back to their new normal. We might even be fortunate enough to have our Thanksgiving meal in our Rockport home (and it will have an even more profound meaning than usual this year). So many others will be struggling mightily for months and years to come. We are committed to helping wherever and whenever we can.

The vast majority of this human experience has been the sheer awe of and gratitude for our fellow human beings. The selflessness and tireless work of so many, putting others’ needs ahead of their own, is humbling. The efforts of town officials, who never could have imagined what they were signing up for when they ran for office in this small, relaxed coastal community, is admirable. I can’t put into words the pride and gratitude that swelled in my soul in those early days of commuting between Austin and Rockport, as I watched the armies of trucks, heavy equipment, and emergency response vehicles sharing the road with us filled with volunteers going in to serve their fellow citizens.

The dignity of work — particularly hard, dirty, dangerous work — has never been more visible to me. I will never see an electrical or telephone lineman without feeling enormous gratitude and appreciation. Nor a sanitation worker, or the people who service port-a-potties, cable repairmen, FedEx drivers, construction workers, or business owners who lost everything but are determined to focus on getting their businesses up and running so they can serve others first. Having said that, there are a lot of issues no one reports on or talks about after a disaster like this, except with people who are experiencing it together.

Almost every plant and tree lost all their leaves, if they survived at all. The palm fronds of most of Rockport’s stately palm trees were shorn off. There is green growth returning, a hopeful sign of renewal. Every flower from every plant is gone. Of course, they’ll come back. Everything just looks mutated. We swept so many dead baby birds from our yard, roof and deck that I had to just sit down and cry, thinking about how scared and helpless they must have been, just like all of us.

We’ve all seen photos of the heaps and mountains of debris and garbage that pile up as a result of storm damage like this, but it’s hard to describe what that view does to your soul every time you look outside or drive up and down your street. It’s disheartening and sad, a constant reminder of memories made and sentimental objects gone. Dining room tables where families celebrated carefree summer vacations together, beds that welcomed family and friends from afar to enjoy all the Texas Gulf Coast has to offer, patio furniture where futures were planned and dreams were dreamed while looking out at the majesty of Aransas Bay — all piled up in front of homes that will never be the same. It’s incredibly daunting. But, at the same time, with every day comes a little more order. The piles grow a little smaller and will eventually be gone. The hum of construction work will most certainly be part of the soundtrack here for months and months to come, and that is a hopeful sound right now instead of the nuisance I might have considered it to be a few months ago.

The first few days and weeks, everyone tried to keep up a happy face, hugging each other as they came back to the destruction all around them. Gallows humor is a beautiful thing when going through shared grief, too. That can’t be held up indefinitely, though. Even the strongest of men and women have signs of fatigue around their eyes and a slight slump in their shoulders when there is no electricity or working sewage system.

Using a public portable toilet at a football tailgate or a concert is one thing. Having to use one for nearly two weeks with 10,000 of your neighbors in the same situation is a pretty humbling experience. Running water and electricity make a big difference in a community’s outlook. Air conditioning goes a long way to cool tempers, not just bodies. And while cable television and internet access are considered “necessities,” most everyone in Rockport understands that’s not exactly true. Each service lost has been cheered mightily and appreciated exponentially when it has been restored.

And still, everywhere else in the world, life goes on as normal. I had to fly back to New Jersey for some important customer meetings in the midst of the cleanup efforts. Landing at Newark, an airport I’m in at least a couple of times a month, I felt like I had arrived in a foreign country. Listening to the radio in my rental car, as news focused on Florida in the aftermath of Irma, it seemed like no one in the world but me cared anything about Rockport, Texas, anymore. I heard a radio interview of a woman in Naples, Florida, the day after the storm. The reporter asked her how she fared in the storm that had hit just 24 hours before. She said, “Our house is fine, but we have no power. We have no internet. We’re living like savages.” I nearly drove off the road. I was almost three weeks in and we’d only had our power go on a few days before. We haven’t had television or Wi-Fi since the storm, although by press time we should. At no point in that time did I feel like a savage, uncomfortable and unpleasant as it was.

Immediately after a storm like Harvey, nature is a juxtaposition. Mass destruction is everywhere, but the air and sky are so clear, and the sunrises and sunsets seem like they have gone through some kind of amazing technicolor enhancement. I choose to believe that this is God’s way of reminding us that what drew us all to this special place is still there and will be there to encourage us all as we work to rebuild not just our own homes, but the community at large.

As Rockport is rebuilt, it will need everyone who loves it to help it thrive again and still maintain its fiercely independent, vibrant, quirky nature. My husband and I are taking our good fortune as a sign that we were meant to play a role of some kind in its rebirth; and in doing so, it will bond us even more tightly and inextricably to this wonderful spot in what I believe is the very best part of the world.

When time has passed and recovery is underway, I hope you’ll consider visiting this special place so that you can understand why we love it so. Until then, if you have the means or inclination, Rockport, Fulton, Aransas Pass, Port Aransas and every little community in between still need your money and your prayers, if you have either to spare.

 

About the author: Kelly Warren Moore has sold clinical research and development software solutions to the pharmaceutical and biotech industry for the past several years. She previously spent 20 years in business development for the pharmaceutical research and development field, focusing on multi-study, global clinical programs. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics from The University of Texas at Austin. Any opinions expressed in this article are strictly her own and are not meant to represent those of any employer, client or organization with whom she is affiliated.

 

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