Hurricane Harvey devastates Texas, sets records
Nueces County Judge Loyd Neal described the tropical depression headed for Corpus Christi as a typical weekend storm, "a good drill."
Neal was addressing the county's emergency operations center after forecasters predicted the tropical depression swirling in the Gulf of Mexico growing into a tropical storm or Category 1 hurricane.
"We’re talking about winds at 80 to 85 miles per hour," Neal said. "The wind blows that hard here on Saturday mornings anyway. We just don’t have 8 to 20 inches of rain."
Hurricane Harvey shattered those expectations.
Within 43 hours, Harvey grew into tropical storm, Category 1, Category 2, Category 3 and Category 4, packing 132 mph peak winds in Port Aransas before wind-measuring instruments went offline.
Shortly before 10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 25, Hurricane Harvey made landfall 30 miles northeast of the city of Corpus Christi.
The storm's fierce winds and historical rainfall spared Corpus Christi, but it devastated much of the Texas Gulf Coast. The beast of a storm would claim dozens of lives, cause billions in damage and dump more than four feet of rain on the Texas coast and areas just inland.
Port Aransas was the first to feel Hurricane Harvey's growing fury.
"I don’t know what the wind speed was, but all of a sudden, the dorm we were in sounded like it was getting hit with a .50-caliber machine gun," said David Parsons, the city manager in Port Aransas. "It blasted out every window in that building. We were doing pretty good until that point."
Harvey would thrash Rockport, Fulton and the rest of Aransas County before moving north, where it dumped 51 inches of rain from here to Houston and beyond, becoming the costliest storm in United States history.
Two people were killed in the initial storm, one each in Nueces and Aransas counties. More than a dozen died farther to the north, in epic flooding as Harvey finally lost its strength nearly a week after making landfall.
Robert Zbranek could have been a statistic.
Zbranek, who moved to Rockport two years ago, decided to weather the storm aboard his sailboat moored off Veterans Memorial Drive.
Just hours after the storm he sat on his other boat, a project boat he hopes to turn into a charter fishing business, looking at his sailboat, the Sweet Mother Pearl, half-submerged.
Zbranek remembers the moment it was picked up and thrown into the dock, gashing a hole in the hull and forcing him to flee to safety in his car parked just feet away.
The wind "cut like a knife," but the bay never washed onto the sidewalk.
"I can't say what it was like. It's way worse than I can describe," he said hours after the storm passed. "If they had said it was going to be a (Category 4), I wouldn't have been here. No way."
The catastrophic storm prompted Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to activate more than 12,000 national guardsmen within days. A utility company ordered thousands of workers into the region to begin power restoration efforts — a process expected to continue into mid-September.
About 21,000 federal employees have been dispatched to Texas and Louisiana to help with search and rescue and recovery efforts. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both visited the Corpus Christi in the week after the hurricane.
The message from Washington has been "we're with you," and Austin has pledged to supply food and water to victims of Hurricane Harvey for as long as necessary.
"We will be here until we restore this region back to normal as soon as possible," Abbott said in Corpus Christi early last week. "We recognize it will be a new normal."
With an initial damage estimate at $160 billion, Hurricane Harvey could surpass the damage totals of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined.
The Port of Corpus Christi, the nation’s fourth-largest port in terms of tonnage, is reopened after being closed for six days. Grocery stores and gas stations are working to restock their supplies.
Still, because hurricanes are a part of life for this part of the world, don't expect a industrial exodus, said Iain Vasey, executive director of the Corpus Christi Regional Economic Development Corporation.
"The reality is they want to be close to a major port to ship out product, so that’s a risk they have to take to some degree," Vasey said.
In the coastal communities of Bayside, Lamar, Fulton, Rockport and Port Aransas, recovery is inching along. Search and rescue efforts wrapped up Wednesday.
Still, like the residents of Aransas County who have painted "Rockport Strong" and "Rockport resilient" on the boards they used to protect their homes, Vasey is confident recovery will happen.
"They will recover, it just takes a while," he said. "The fundamentals of why people want to be there — being close to the water, close to good fishing — those things haven’t changed."
Economies in the small coastal towns rely on tourism as a backbone, but with most restaurants, cottages and piers severely damaged by the storm there’s no shortcut to recovery.
"When it quits raining it'll turn beautiful again," Fulton Mayor Jimmy Kendrick said.
Fortunately, Corpus Christi and other South Texas communities dodged massive flooding or devastating storm surge.
In Houston, the massive storm produced record flooding.
Nearly five feet of rain fell on the nation’s fourth-largest city, trapping entire cities in the metropolitan area by flash floods from rivers that crested well above record levels.
The National Weather Service tweeted in the wake of the storm that its color scale for amounts of rainfall had to be altered, because the previous version did not have categories that accounted for the more than 50 inches of rain Houston received.
While Houston continues search and rescue efforts, along the coastline in South Texas the focus has shifted to cleanup. In Fulton, the sound of chainsaws filled the streets. In this neighborhood on the north end of Fulton, trees caused the most damage.
“It was solid green before,” said Robert McCulloch, whose family has owned a modest home in Copano Bay for years. “There was this canopy with thick, green leaves.”
Now the street will bake in the sunlight once the maze of centuries-old live oak trees is cleared. The trees that didn’t fall stand bare with branches twisted and broken.
The devastation has been documented across the world, and those images have spurred others to action. The governor, active in guiding relief efforts, said it’s about “Texans helping Texans,” and the state – and world – took that message seriously.
Large corporations like Amazon, Facebook and Google have pledged to match donations to certain amounts, and smaller companies like H-E-B, Whataburger and Stripes have made donations. Sports stars like J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans have orchestrated fundraising drives.
But when it comes to people on the streets, volunteers from neighboring communities are leading the way. One example of that is the Castillo family working in tandem with a group of coastal fishing enthusiasts from San Antonio.
Just two days after the storm, Christine Castillo, her husband and two sons were set up along a main street in Rockport with 200 cases of water. It was day one of a blank check.
“To see this place like this is heartbreaking,” said Christine Castillo, who grew up vacationing in the area. “Their entire livelihoods are just gone. They at least need water and food, and we can provide that.”
Their family and support group in San Antonio have pledge to provide water and non-perishable foods to Aransas County until the water and power are turned back on.
The power is expected to be off until Sept. 8, and there is no estimate when the full water system will be restored.
Despite the storm’s intensity and widespread damage throughout the Coastal Bend, there were only two reported deaths from Hurricane Harvey’s landfall. A person was killed in a fire in Fulton and a man died when he fell into the Nueces River.
Mandatory evacuation orders across San Patricio and Aransas counties and in Port Aransas moved many out of the path of the storm, but an estimated 9,800 stayed behind in Aransas County, said Burt Mills, the county judge.
One possible reason for the low number of fatalities from a Category 4 hurricane landing a direct hit on a small coastal town: a lower-than-expected storm surge and less rain than anticipated.
Coastal areas directly in the way of the powerful storm were forecast to be innundated with six to 12 feet of storm surge with higher amounts possible.
Port Lavaca experienced the peak storm surge of 6.57 feet. Port Aransas reached 5.2 feet and the Packery Channel 4.64 feet, according National Weather Service Corpus Christi.
Saturday morning, the roads around Fulton and Rockport were mostly dry, odd for a city prone to flooding with even modest amounts of rainfall. Aransas County Judge Burt Mills described it as a stroke of good luck.
"Mother nature gives you a break sometimes," he said. "It's a real silver lining."
For many in Aransas County, even without the storm surge, Friday night was an experience they won't soon forget. And one they will never try to relive.
Wax said the 47-year gap since the last hurricane hit Rockport made residents complacent. Zbranek, for one, is much better-informed now.
"I wanted to see a hurricane — just not that up close and personal and strong," Zbranek said, breaking from his joking demeanor at the memory. "It was like a tornado, only longer and bigger."
As the community takes in the catastrophic damage and comes to terms with their experience, some are beginning to see possibility.
"It's an opportunity, too," Rockport City Manager Kevin Carruth said. "We can rebuild it better."
Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas Coastal Bend as a Category 4 on Aug. 25, 2017. Here's a look at the damage the Corpus Christi Caller-Times staff captured the morning after. Mary Ann Cavazos Beckett/Caller-Times