Story by Sarah Naron
ROCKPORT – Just minutes after the devastating storm imposed by Hurricane Harvey – which made landfall Friday, Aug. 25, 2017 – recovery efforts sprang to life in Rockport, a small city located in Aransas County and half an hour from Corpus Christi.
“The first part was search and rescue; they went around the community looking for people who had survived the storm,” explained City of Rockport Mayor Patrick “Pat” Rios. “We were fortunate that we had no loss of life.”
The devastation in the city, Rios said, was widespread.
“We quickly found out that many, many, many people lost everything – entire homes, all their personal belongings,” he said. “Once we did debris cleanup, we got into the recovery mode of building.”
Throughout the more than two years that have passed since the disaster, according to Rios, the recovery efforts have remained underway.
“A lot of our individual homeowners have been able to repair and rebuild what they lost, although many of them have not because of issues with insurance,” he reported. “Some of the folks didn’t have insurance.
“The delays we’ve run into have been related to a couple areas,” Rios continued. “One is insurance issues, where insurance companies are extremely slow in paying, and another is the individuals having to work with appraisers and adjusters in coming up with an equitable solution.”
Among the most “unfortunate” occurrences resulting from Harvey, Rios said, was the total loss of the city’s multifamily housing. Issues spawned by this destruction remain in the city today.
“We were promised help from the federal government and the state on helping us rebuild our affordable housing units again,” Rios explained. “The market-priced housing came back quickly, but there’s an extreme shortage of places that are affordable for the workforce to stay in.”
Fortunately, Rios reported, “we got a couple of those open,” with the most recent being a complex consisting of 40 units.
“That’s just about full; there may be one or two units still available,” he said. “We’re rebuilding two other apartment complexes – one of them was bulldozed off; the other was about 90 percent destroyed, and they’re just using some of the leftover to build onto again.”
Rios estimated that housing should be returned to the city within the next 180 days.
The slow accrual of funding, Rios said, has proven to be a major impediment.
“The government has been very deliberate – I think that’s probably a correct word – in assessing and approving the funds that are necessary for us to rebuild after having promised them the day after the storm,” he said.
Rios also addressed the widely held misconception that the funds to facilitate the reconstruction of housing are presented directly to the City.
“The public reads articles in the paper about the City of Rockport being given these billions of dollars, and they want to know what we’ve done with them,” he said. “Those funds go to the contractors or builders or whoever is bidding on these projects to rebuild. They don’t go to the City.”
Among the largest projects currently underway is the replacement of Rockport City Hall, which was destroyed in the storm.
“We’ve taken our employees and scattered them among several different city-owned properties,” Rios shared. “Our city hall used to house municipal court, utility billing, council chambers, and the city management office. Right now, some of us are doubled up at the public works building, and some of us are at auxiliaries.”
The municipal court, he added, is currently located in the county courthouse – a structure which is also temporary due to the fact that the Aransas County Courthouse was lost to Harvey as well.
The City is also operating with fewer employees, Rios said.
“We were originally slotted for 126 full-time city employees and eight part-time employees,” he shared. “We got down to 112 full-time employees. Some employees left because they lost their homes and just couldn’t afford to stay here; they had no place to live, so they just moved on. We’ve been running lean just from a budget standpoint, because we just don’t have the city revenues that we had previously.”
In the aftermath of the storm, Rios reported, the city suffered the loss of approximately 400 water accounts and 600 natural gas accounts.
“So, that means that either businesses or homes – we’re missing that many of them,” he said. “Some of that has come back.”
The city’s population, according to Rios, saw a decrease from roughly 10,500 full-time residents to an estimated 8,085 residents.
Other challenges resulting from Harvey, Rios said, impact the school system.
“Our school district was offline for so long, we’ve lost about 400-500 students from a total population of about 3,200 in the school,” he explained. “That’s slowly coming back – we’ve gained about 150 since then, so we’re down about 350 students.”
As Rios shared, the district’s funding abilities, ranking, and rating are a few areas which suffer negative impacts from the loss of students.
Despite the challenges, Rios said, residents of the city have held onto “a really good outlook.
“We’re rebuilding better than before,” he said. “Everything we’re doing now is going to be much more resilient.”
One project which has been completed, Rios shared, is the reconstruction of Memorial Park, which is the largest park maintained by the city’s Parks & Leisure Services.
“From the ground up, we built three baseball fields, grandstands, and concession stands,” he said. “A lot of that was done with help from different private foundations and donations.”
In its new state, Rios said, the park “looks fantastic.
“We put in a new fit court,” he added. “We moved our skate park there. We’ve actually put in a nine-hole disc golf course, which opened a couple of days ago. There’s people all over that, just crawling all over it like ants.”
Members of the community, Rios said, have shown appreciation for the completion of the park repairs.
“We wanted something that we could get families together with,” he said. “All the picnic grounds are back, and the barbecues are set up. All of the playground equipment has been replaced or repaired. So, it gives folks a place to go to and really appreciate a good family atmosphere.”
Throughout the recovery process, Rios explained, the City has worked with various entities on different levels of government, such as the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) on the federal level and the Texas General Land Office (GLO) on the state level.
“Money has been funneled from the federal government down to the state; that goes to either the GLO or the Department of Emergency Management,” Rios said. “They’re working now on the local level with the local COGs (Councils of Government). We’re kind of working projects through them right now.”
The City is also seeking to band together with neighboring cities and towns in hopes of securing additional funding.
“Originally, there was a $4 billion dollar bucket of money that was announced,” Rios explained. “So, everyone’s lining up to try to figure out how they can get projects funded with that money. It’ll be very, very competitive.”
Among Rios’s biggest concerns is the small size of Rockport.
“With about 8,000 residents and probably 6,500 votes, we’ll be competing with people like Fort Bend County with hundreds and hundreds of thousands of voters that have a lot more influence in Austin,” he pointed out. “Houston, fortunately, has their own bucket of money, so we’re not competing with that. But the City of Corpus Christi, the Port Authority of Corpus Christi – these are large, large entities that command a lot more and have a bigger voice at the table than we do.”
As a result, a regional approach is being considered.
“We think that we can look at drainage projects and bulk-heading projects – not just in Rockport, but all the way south to Corpus Christi and all the way north to the Houston border,” Rios explained. “I think if we work with the counties close to us and come together as one voice, we’ll get a lot more attention. And it will mean a whole bunch more, because if we fix our problems, but our neighbors next door to us don’t and would lose, for example, a bulkhead, that’s going to cause our new work to just fall in also. So, we all have to be on the same reconstruction timetable.”
The recovery process, Rios said, has been greatly assisted by volunteers. Many faith-based groups descended on the city in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
“We had every denomination you can imagine – Catholic charities, the Texas Baptist Men, Samaritan’s Purse, the Amish – the list just goes on and on,” he said. “These people brought three things that we needed – money, manpower, and material – and helped us rebuild and repair residences so that our folks could get a roof over their head and move back into their homes.”
The groups – some of which are still providing assistance – helped with various tasks, such as debris removal and the replacement of roofs.
“It’s an enormous blessing for us to have help like that,” Rios said. “We’re still getting help from college kids that have given up spring breaks instead of spending them on the beach. Now, they may take one day and go to the beach, but I don’t blame them. But it’s been very, very helpful. We just can’t thank them enough.”
A volunteer relief center is still in operation in the city.
“That’s a place that our resident go if they still need help,” Rios explained. “We match the needs with the availability of the volunteers that come in.”
For information on how you can help the continuing recovery process, please contact the Aransas County Volunteer Reception Center at (361)-727-9011 or via Facebook. The center is located at 1515 N. Live Oak St. in Rockport.