Port Aransas has been a popular coastal destination for decades, but its beaches and piers will be largely deserted during this year’s Labor Day weekend. When Harvey’s 100-plus mph winds tore through the town’s restaurants, gift shops, and beachside condos last week, Port A’s tourist industry took a hit that 3,000 local residents will feel for years.
Instead of walking along the beach or fishing in the Gulf waters, people with second homes on the island will work on restoring their property’s former serenity, and locals will continue to try and rebuild their home. But the businesses that employed most of the town’s inhabitants are largely gone, and many of those workers are now without homes.
Julie Wolle, 48, is the president of the Twin Palms Condominium Owners Association. An Alamo Heights resident, she invited the Rivard Report into her two-story vacation condo Wednesday, two days after the island was reopened to residents with an 8 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. curfew in place.
With ferry service suspended indefinitely, the sole point of entry into Port Aransas is the 17-mile strip of State Highway 361 that connects the area to Padre Island and Corpus Christi.
“As we headed down the highway we saw all the utility lines down,” Wolle said. “And coming into town [the damage] just took your breath away.”
Stop lights stared out blankly without a blink. Convenience stores stood boarded and vacant with letters from their signs left in pieces along the parking lot. Driving deeper into residential areas, the magnitude of the damage became more pronounced.
The trunks of palm trees stood severed from their tops lying nearby. Roadways had been cleared, but piles of soggy wood, window frames, and other chunks of debris from ruined dwellings cluttered street corners. Scraps of sheet metal were strewn across the ground like twisted pieces of paper. Others pieces wrapped around the tops of trees.
Some homes stood with only portions of their original framework left intact. Roofs had lost shingles, windows had shattered, and sodden furniture was visible inside damp, dark living rooms. Stop signs had fallen or been twisted 90 degrees from their original orientation, confusing the flow of traffic at intersections.
“The difference that 17 miles can make is astounding,” said Wolle, comparing the damage in Port Aransas to the relatively glancing blow Corpus Christi took from Harvey. “The restaurants were open. We had no problem finding gas. [Corpus Christi was] spared for the most part. This island was just decimated.”
Inside Wolle’s condo, a green water line wrapped around the perimeter of her first floor. She and her husband, Derrell Wolle, 54, had begun cutting out walls in their living room to prevent the spread of mold. They had come prepared with a generator, an expansive tool kit, and equipment to pull Derrell’s submerged boat from the water.
While they worked, two black luxury SUVS pulled into the driveways next to the Wolles’ condo. Other owners in the 10-unit complex stopped by to ask for advice on their own cleanup efforts, and Julie offered their special drill bit for removing the hurricane shutters that covered many of the condos’ windows.
Apart from the flooding damage, the Wolles’ second home remained intact. They knew they had fared relatively well. On the day before the storm hit, they moved all of their belongings and furniture up to the second floor. Rooms with neatly made beds were stuffed with armchairs, tables, and paddleboards.
“The hardest part for us, though, is seeing the mobile homes and the trailers and the older houses that are just gone,” Wolle said. “They’re just gone.”
“All those new ones and the ones on stilts, they’re in good shape,” said 72-year-old Roger Hester, sitting in his golf cart. Hester has managed the Beacon Trailer Park, situated 500 feet from Wolle’s front door, for the last 20 years.
“I ain’t got much to manage anymore,” Hester said. “It looks like devastation.”
Some trailers were overturned, while Harvey’s Category 4 winds had slammed others together. “Everything that’s under four foot – it’s got mud in it,” Hester said.
Even the trailers that remained standing were filled with mud, wet cardboard, and other debris that caked the floors. One resident, 27-year-old Jessica Williford, spent the morning shoveling out the interior of her trailer, all her possessions damaged by water. She said it was like throwing a life away.
“There’s nothing,” Williford said. “The island is dead. It’s pretty sad.”
Williford moved into the park three years ago. Her mom was renting a house next door, but she died last year. The two had vacationed on the island together since 2011, enjoying the beach, playing darts, going fishing.
Despite the destruction, Williford was in good spirits. Walking out of the park, she spoke with neighbors, sharing hugs and the firm belief that they would get through this.
“I love this community,” Williford said. “That’s all we have. That’s all we have to be anymore – our spirits. We’re all checking up on each other.”
She walked to Moby Dick’s, a favorite restaurant whose palm thatch roofing had been swept from the body of the building like a tide reaching out across a sandy beach.
Most of her friends on the island had lost their jobs. With so many destroyed businesses, the only people left with employment were the ones who worked with the city government.
Both Wolle and Hester were waiting for power to be restored before they could start any real progress on restoration efforts. Electricity isn’t expected to be restored for another three to six weeks. Residents were expecting water services to soon return to the island on Wednesday, and the San Antonio Water System reported that it had restored services on Friday.
Wolle met her husband in Port Aransas 21 years ago, and the couple wants to retire there. She knew that something like Harvey could happen, but they’re not deterred. They want to help their neighbors out, and make the neighborhood the happy place they’ve come to appreciate as a second home. She expects that to take somewhere around six months, but that’s just a guess.
“We’re pretty motivated to get up and running as fast as we can,” Wolle said.
In Beacon Park, Hester wants to help bring things back to normal, too. He was trying to send a photograph of one trailer that had been thrown into another one to someone named “Big Boy,” but the cell tower near his house had collapsed, and he couldn’t send the picture from his phone.
“There’s a whole lot of [trailers] that have got to be moved,” Hester said. “I don’t know. I don’t know what they gonna do.
“I’m going to try to get it back together.”