When the wind blows: Hurricane Harvey hits Rockport, Texas
Having swept through Barbados, Suriname and Guyana, Hurricane Harvey went on to cause colossal damage in the US. It made landfall in Rockport, Texas on 25th August 2017 at peak intensity. Two months after the storm, we spoke to the city’s mayor, Charles Wax, about its impact on his town
25th August 2017 (Taken from: #28)
The mayor of Rockport, the Texan town worst hit by the most powerful storm to strike the US since Katrina in 2005, followed official advice and left town before Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Gulf Coast. “When I returned after the storm I saw poles, trees and wires scattered across the highways,” says Charles Wax. “There were roofs in the middle of the street; in one instance a home had its roof blown off into the home next door, destroying both homes in the process.”
The news media’s focus was on the devastating flooding in the greater Houston area, where more than 75 people died and thousands were left without shelter. But Rockport was Harvey’s ground zero. The town lost electricity, water, its sewage system and its communications networks.
“[Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster response unit] Texas Task Force One estimated that 35 percent of our community was completely destroyed,” says Mayor Wax. “I heard some heartbreaking stories. Some residents lost everything they owned except for the clothes they were wearing.” Wax says that around 40 percent of Rockport’s 9,000 residents chose to stay in town throughout the hurricane, despite a compulsory evacuation order. “These are individual decisions and if a citizen chooses not to leave there’s not a lot you can do,” Wax says.
The mayor’s main priority in the days following the storm was to keep people alive. His next goal, he says, was to respond to the danger posed by downed power lines and hazardous conditions on the roads.
“We issued a curfew because when the sun went down we had no streetlights or electricity,” he says. At least Rockport wasn’t left to fend for itself. “Support from state and federal agencies arrived almost immediately after the passage of the storm,” says Wax. “We had municipal police departments from neighbouring jurisdictions bring over equipment, vehicles and personnel to help us manage the disaster. We lost almost every police car we had – all their windows were blown out by flying debris – but adjacent jurisdictions sent in cars and people; they were a godsend to us.”
It’s going to take several years to get back to where we were before the storm hit”
Wax is confident that Rockport will recover and says that the town has made good progress in the two months since the storm. “We’ve moved over a million cubic yards of debris from our roadways and neighbourhoods,” he says. “Debris is a psychological issue because if you wake up in the morning and see a pile of it outside your house it reminds you very graphically about what you’ve gone through.
“Power was restored 13 days after the hurricane and our water and sewage systems are back up and operating. As of late October, around a quarter of businesses had reopened, including some restaurants. But it’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s going to take several years to get back to where we were before the storm hit.”
It will be known as the community that took on Hurricane Harvey and won”
How will Rockport’s recovery be funded? “I wish I had the answer,” Wax replies. “We are examining every avenue available to us for additional funding. Our tax base has been severely injured, with a significant shortfall in both property and sales tax, and our tourism industry, which our economy is based on, has been decimated. Two of our five principal attractions have been completely destroyed, a third had over a million dollars’ worth of damage and it might not be possible to rebuild a fourth.”
Will Rockport be forever known for Hurricane Harvey? “No, it will be known as the community that took on Hurricane Harvey and won,” says Wax. “You see the best of humanity when everybody as a group goes through a disaster like this. Neighbours helping neighbours, strangers helping strangers. The absolute best of everybody comes out.”
One year after Rockport was devastated by Hurricane Harvey, many of the town’s population who evacuated before the storm hit had not returned to their homes, according to a report in the Texas Tribune published on 24th August 2018. The report cites unofficial estimates from local government officials that suggest around 20 percent of Rockport’s 10,000 residents had not yet come back. According to county school district figures, school enrolments were down 15 percent in the year following the disaster, and according to Aransas County judge Burt Mills, the town lost a quarter of its taxable property to the hurricane.
Read more about the wider impact of Hurricane Harvey and the science behind the increasing ferocity of tropical storms in our report from the same issue: Why hurricanes are causing more havoc every year
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