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Port Aransas Cleanup Continues As Tourists, Residents Return The Summer After Harvey

Joey Palacios
Texas Public Radio
This home off Shibu Sands in Port Aransas was purchased by Mark Davis of San Antonio after Hurricane Harvey. He plans to rent it out and retire in it later.

It's summer in Texas, and that’s got many people heading for their nearest pool, or, as tradition has it, the Gulf. But one of the state’s most beloved beach getaway destinations, Port Aransas, took what amounts to a direct hit from Hurricane Harvey in August, and the town’s still bouncing back.

3:07 in the morning

It’s around 9 in the morning, and the Port Aransas ferry is chugging across the Corpus Christi channel. At least 20 cars are onboard. Some riders get out and linger on the decks. They’re dressed in bathing suits and flip flops.

This classic early summer scene is a world away from nine months ago, when Hurricane Harvey tore through Port Aransas with 130 mph winds. It ripped apart houses and businesses. Piles of debris and displaced boats littered the city.

That exact moment is immortalized on a clock above Mayor Charles Bujan’s desk.

“That’s when it came ashore — 3:07 in the morning,” he said.

Credit Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
A clock behind Mayor Bujan's desk shows the moment Harvey made landfall.

Bujan said he’s tired, but satisfied with the city’s progress so far. About 250 damaged homes and four businesses have been demolished. Most of the debris is gone, but as repairs continue, the costs keep adding up, he said.

“And it’s an estimate, but we believe it’s between $500 million and $1 billion in damage in Port Aransas,” he said.

Before the hurricane, 3,800 people lived in Port Aransas. Today, the mayor says about 300 are still living elsewhere.

“I think, on an average, most of the people have returned,” he said. “And then, even with that 300 people, it could be even a little higher than that. There are those that are going to come back as soon as their places are fixed.”

Tourists are also returning, he said. More of them are hopping on the ferry each week. That’s a big deal, he said, since tourism is basically Port A’s entire economy. Spring break turnout was better than Bujan expected, and Memorial Day weekend was a hit.

A long road

Now one of the city’s priorities is fixing the harbor.

“It was totally devastated — 100 percent,” Bujan said. “We’re laying docks now as a matter of fact – floating docks. We’ve got most of our electricity back down there.”

At the harbor, the dock remains and sunken boats have long been hauled away. It’s almost empty, except for couple Randy and Diana Burgess sitting in a golf cart, listening to the Beach Boys. The expanse in front of them was once filled with rows and rows of boats. Today, just one long floating dock remains.

“This was the newest dock. They had just finished it like June, July,” Diana Burgess said. “They finished it last summer.”

Their boat is one of about a dozen tied to the lucky dock. The Burgesses say they feel lucky, too. Two days before mandatory Harvey evacuations, they packed up their belongings and brought their two boats inland. Randy said he had a gut feeling — and he was right.

Credit Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Randy and Diana Burgess.

“We had 6 feet of water in our bottom floor. We had almost 2 feet of water in our split level and we’re still rebuilding,” Randy Burgess said.

It’s been a long road. They’ve battled insurance claim denials — and won. And they’re living on the top floor of their house while the rest is repaired.

“We had such a great response from volunteers and folks that came in that didn’t know anybody from anybody and that just kind of restored our faith in humanity, you know,” Randy Burgess said.

Randy and Diana call Port Aransas home, and while some may consider leaving after a storm like Harvey, others are actually moving here.

Rebuilding after Harvey

On the other side of the island, a gutted two-story house sits a block from the beach. There’s a roof but no walls. Port A resident Cynthia Frank is helping renovate it for a San Antonio man who purchased it after the hurricane.  

“He actually bought this at a good price so he could fix it,” she said.

The flooded home went for $200,000, and Franks said it probably needs another $200,000 worth of work.

“If he was going to buy this house fixed, it’d be a half a million dollars,” Frank said.

Credit Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Mark Davis and Cynthia Franks evaluate the work on Davis' recently purchased house.

She said the new buyer plans to rent it out for a few years and then retire there.

Frank owns several properties herself — some that still need repairing — and has faced scamming contractors.

“I gave a gentleman $11,000 and he blew town and didn’t do anything,” she said. “And I’m sure if that happened to me, it happened to other people as well.”

Cynthia Frank and the Burgesses are just three of the thousands in Port Aransas taking their own steps to rebuild. They say they hope to never see another a storm like Harvey, but love their town enough to take that risk.

This story was provided by Texas Public Radio. It's part of a three-part series: "Rebuilding After Harvey."

Born and raised in San Antonio, Joey joined the Texas Public Radio newsroom in October of 2011. Joey graduated from Roosevelt High School and obtained an associate of applied science degree in radio and television broadcasting from San Antonio College in 2010.