PORT ARANSAS, TEX. — Islander souvenir shop has a new roof, inner walls replaced and a load of stuffed dolphins, key chains and shot glasses fresh off the truck. But when it reopened on the first Saturday of spring break, seven months after Hurricane Harvey’s landfall nearby, half the store was still cordoned off and empty.
Workers planned to get back on their hands and knees to scrape mud off more of the concrete floor in the coming weeks, but Islander was one of the lucky businesses. More than half are still closed. Windows blown out. Debris piled out front. “No trespassing” signs posted.
Port Aransas, a beach town on a barrier island near the middle of the Texas coast, is almost entirely dependent on tourism. This month accounts for 20 percent of the $400 million it brings in every year from visitors. Half of the city’s income comes in between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
But rebuilding is taking longer than most anticipated.
“Everyone keeps saying two to three years. We want that to not be true, but it seems like it could be,” said Vanessa Garcia, office manager for Bernie’s Beach House. “We’re just reminding ourselves that we’re lucky to be open at all.”
The area hit hard by Harvey is still recovering as hurricane season looms just two months away. The weather in South Texas is already warm enough to cause severe storms. Early Thursday morning, a low-grade tornado struck Holiday Beach, just 30 miles north of Port Aransas, according to the National Weather Service, ripping the roof off a two-story home that was in the process of being repaired from hurricane damage. Seven people were rescued from the house.
Harvey, the first Category 4 hurricane to hit the Texas coast since 1961, made landfall just north of Port Aransas on Aug. 25 with wind gusts peaking at 132 mph. A wall of water 11 feet high washed over the island. Every business and at least 75 percent of homes were damaged or destroyed, according to Mayor Charles Bujan. There was a mandatory evacuation, but about 80 people stayed behind; one 57-year-old man was found dead in his home.
City officials had a command center set up in neighboring Corpus Christi. To get police back into Port Aransas after the storm had passed, they had to bulldoze sand and debris off 18 miles of the two-lane highway that connects the two cities. The trucks had to stop short of the heart of the island, blocked by parts of splintered houses and mounds of roof shingles and business signs.
Hurricane damage estimated at $125 billion by NOAA stretched along more than 250 miles of coastline from Corpus Christi to Louisiana. In Harris County, which includes Houston, 2,732 people are still using temporary housing. The program has been extended several times and is set to expire on April 23.
Port Aransas had 4,000 residents before the storm and about 3,000 now. More than 4.5 million visitors come annually. “Everything in Port Aransas was totally, absolutely devastated,” Bujan said.
Harvey hit the hotel industry the hardest in Port Aransas. Only a third of the city’s 3,800 rooms are currently available. The 210 rooms of Port Royal, one of the largest resorts on the island, would normally be teeming with college students and families during spring break. Instead, construction crews blocked the entrance. The beachfront complex is expected to have a grand reopening on June 1 — a timeline most hotels in the area are projecting.
The pristine beaches, which are the main draw for visitors here, helped the island to swell each day, but the lack of overnight lodging caused the city to empty out every evening.
St. Patrick’s Day should have been a sure thing for Bernie’s since it fell on the last Saturday of spring break. Not knowing what to expect, the bar was fully loaded with extra help on hand.
But without the safety net of a hotel room nearby, the late-night scene on the island fizzled out.
Some residents and business owners have left, frustrated with insurance payouts, construction delays or lack of money to be made. The ones who remain, Bujan said, “have saltwater in their veins.”
“They love the beauty of the sea, but they also understand its power,” he said.
Tracy Davis Shaw came back to Mustang Island seven months ago to find her high-end beachwear boutique destroyed.
Four feet of tidal surge from Hurricane Harvey rushed into the 1,500-square-foot shop in a strip mall before the roof collapsed on top of $300,000 worth of merchandise.
Shaw is in the midst of a legal battle with the insurance company and a builder, so she doesn’t anticipate reopening Sirena Water Wear anytime soon.
Like many business owners, Shaw updated her customers about her store through Facebook posts. Support poured in, and she sold more of her specially designed fishing shorts online in the three months after Harvey than she would have in the store.
The rally behind businesses here is echoed in stories across the island.
“I’ve heard so many times, ‘We’ve come here so many years and wanted to come back to help,’ ” Islander general manager Pam Luebke said. “People were buying tourist stuff just to support us.”
Many Texans view the island with a filter of nostalgia: posing for photos in a giant shark’s mouth, picking out a bag of saltwater taffy at Winton’s Candy Shop and late-night dips in the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico.
“It’s our home away from home,” said Desirea Gonzalez of San Antonio.
The city is confident it will have a good summer once word gets out that it is open for business and people see how much work it took to get that way.
“Port Aransas is probably a fortunate community in all of this because people do have so many positive memories,” Garcia said. “They were here before it was shiny and polished, helped it get that way and want to help get it that way again.”