As the sun shone down on his debris-strewn backyard, James Sammons and three neighbors were rebuilding a portion of his broken back fence Wednesday. Five days earlier, all had defied an evacuation order to remain in Rockport as Category 4 Hurricane Harvey bore down on the coastal town.
They all stayed for the same reason – their jobs – but in the storm’s vicious aftermath, they also shared a common afterthought: It was a mistake they never intend to repeat.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a 6-71 or Detroit diesel [engine] screaming,” Sammons said. “They just scream when they’re running wide open. It sounded like a hundred Detroit diesels parked out there, cranked up all the way. And then whenever the wind got really bad right before the eye hit, the whole house was shaking. It felt like a freight train coming by us.”
Looking out the window of his trailer home, Sammons described seeing 90 mph gusts of wind send horizontal sheets of rain straight through the limbs of live oaks that dot his neighborhood. The trees stand bare now, the storm having stripped the leaves.
“Those gusts that hit, these trees would just lay straight down, man,” Sammons said. “I ain’t never seen trees do that – just go down and come back up. It was a sight and a half.
“I thought we were fixing to lose the roof. I told [his son, Conan Sammons] man, if we get another bad gust like that, we’re going to run for the white truck. We’re going to sit out in the road and watch everything blow away.”
Sammons, 60, has lived on the coast his whole life. Now a shop foreman with the Rockport Rental Center, he has spent most of his career in oilfields working the rigs. Harvey wasn’t his first hurricane, but it was unquestionably the worst he’s experienced.
He says his decision to stay was stupid. Walking out to his 1973 maroon Chevrolet pickup to take out one of the Hav-A-Tampa Jewel cigars from the pack on the seat, he described planning to stay through what he believed would be a Category 1 storm. Those are easy to ride out, he said. Nothing-to-worry-about kinds of storms.
When the storm escalated to a Category 2, then a 3, Sammons was in a bind. His wife had already left for San Antonio by the time he got off work at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, the day a mandatory evacuation notice was issued.
But he needed to board up his trailer, and then a friend staying in France called to ask if he could board up his shopping center. Sammons said he tried but could only find enough wood to board up part of the center. Making matters worse, a bearing had just gone out in his good truck, and he wasn’t sure that his older truck would be able to make it to San Antonio.
“I didn’t allow myself enough time to get it done,” Sammons said. “I didn’t put my foot down, and tell my boss, ‘I’m leaving.’”
After riding out the screaming storm Friday night, Sammons ventured outside to find a ruined Rockport.
“It was just trees down everywhere,” Sammons said. “Biggest oak trees you ever seen, down. You think they’d never blow over. They did. Houses you thought would do well in a hurricane didn’t. The other houses you thought might do poorly did well.”
Stepping over pieces of lumber and other debris littering his yard, Sammons joined the group effort to replace the sections of his fence that had been dislodged during the storm. The fence lined a backyard garage, where the door had been pulled off its rails. Windows in the building were broken, and a swath of fabric fluttered over a shard of glass remaining in the window frame. An television antenna dangled off Sammons’ roof, and a Texas-shaped marker above his front door was gone, leaving only an imprint behind.
Tanya Trahan, a 46-year-old Aransas Pass police officer who also rode out the brunt of Harvey, was one of the neighbors helping Sammons with his fence. A former Louisiana resident, she had experienced Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Harvey, she said, was worse.
Trahan was called into work Friday, just hours before Harvey made landfall. She works with the animal shelter in town and was helping organize an evacuation of the animals to Austin. She stayed longer cleaning kennels, expecting an intake of animals in the wake of the storm.
Finally, she told her employers she had to leave. “I said, ‘If I’m going to die, I’m going home to die. I’m not going to die with y’all.’”
And when the storm finally hit, she was convinced that she would die. She and Kevin McDonald, 45, watched helplessly as their home’s roof was ripped off above them.
“He wouldn’t say anything to me, and I wouldn’t tell him anything because we weren’t trying to worry each other,” Trahan said. “I called my mom and dad in South Louisiana, and told them that I loved them, and I didn’t think I’d see them,” Trahan said, her face tightening behind reflective sunglasses.
In the morning, she felt as if she were walking through a nightmare. Yet somehow all the neighbors made it through the night without injury, and they spent the next morning checking on friends they knew had also weathered the storm. Only one death in Rockport has been reported since the storm hit.
For them and other residents, cleanup efforts will take weeks, if not months. At Sammons’ home, they helped each other mend roofs, replace fences, and restore order.
For his part, Sammons carries with him the knowledge that while he survived Harvey’s fury, he risked his life to do it.
“There’s nothing here worth your life,” Sammons said. “If it had been just a little bit worse, we could have gotten killed in it.
“I ain’t no damn fool. I might be crazy, but I ain’t no damn fool. I ain’t doing it again. It ain’t worth it.”