By Mary Lee Grant,
ARANSAS PASS, Tex. — At a small rural hospital in this shrimping and tourist town of about 3,000, some patients visited the emergency room twice a day, obtaining insulin and other medications they could not afford to buy themselves. Nurses sometimes pooled their money to pay for patients’ cab fare home.
“It is that kind of place,” said Jen Deselms, a registered nurse who worked in the emergency room at Care Regional Medical Center before Hurricane Harvey hit last month, forcing the facility, which serves about 90,000 in three counties, to shut its doors indefinitely. “We look out for each other and for our community. Not having this hospital will be devastating for the entire area.”
Since the storm passed, doctors and nurses have labored to repair the hospital themselves, mopping flooded floors and hammering two-by-fours to patch crumbling walls. In Aransas Pass and the neighboring beachfront towns that were decimated by Harvey’s first brutal landfall, a tale of two recoveries has emerged. Although often described as resort towns, tourism overlays a culture of rural poverty here. These are places where old shrimpers struggle to get by on their disability checks. Folks who gave up on the cities cram into waterfront RV parks — many now destroyed by the storm — venturing to the coast to flip hamburgers or wait tables in a last-ditch effort to find their place in the sun and the sand.
Schools have shut down for the year, and residents needing medical care will have to travel at least 20 miles across the Harbor Bridge to Corpus Christi — difficult for many in an area with little public transportation.
In nearby Rockport, where retirees show their paintings of shrimp boats and pelicans in art galleries along picturesque Copano Bay and condos line the waterfront, virtually nothing remains unscathed. Nearly two weeks after the storm, electricity was still off, cellphone service was spotty, and the water wasn’t back on. About 80 percent of buildings in the town were damaged, according to federal estimates.
But the path to recovery will vary.
“The poor will stay and rebuild, because they have nowhere else to go and no way to get out,” said Chuck Shamel, an executive board member of the Good Samaritan, a nonprofit group that helps low-income residents with food, bills and transportation. “The rich will be back in a few weeks, when the power goes on and the golf courses open.”
The 76-year-old retired counselor moved here to build his dream home with his wife, Betty, a 79-year-old retired teacher, on several wooded acres near the water. Shamel constructs wooden sailboats and sings opera, while his wife paints and fires pottery in her studio. Although Harvey damaged their house, he expects insurance to pay most of the costs. He is more concerned with those who have less.
“We are a barbell community, with 20 percent on the upper end and 20 percent on the lower,” Shamel said.
Many moved to the coast hoping for a fresh start among the placid bays and sheltering oak trees, but the reality often is harsher. Jobs are scarce, salaries low, and property is expensive.
Ida Jeter, 60, who works cleaning and cooking for nuns at a Catholic shrine, is living in her car. The shrine was damaged, and many of the nuns are returning to their home base in Wisconsin, so Jeter does not know if she will have a job.
“They kicked me out of my apartment because it was so damaged,” she said, bursting into tears. “I have nowhere to go.”
‘Bet they blame Trump’
Unlike much of South and Southeast Texas, the poverty here is concentrated in a largely white population. For a time, Rockport and neighboring Seadrift were known for the violence of white shrimpers against the newly arrived Vietnamese, who settled on the Texas coast in the 1970s. Their boats were firebombed, and the Ku Klux Klan rallied and burned a boat in effigy that they called the Viet Cong, even though the Vietnamese immigrants were from southern Vietnam and had fought the Viet Cong.
Now relations are smoother, the town speckled with popular Vietnamese restaurants and the local paper reporting enthusiastically on the accomplishments of Vietnamese students.
Unlike heavily Hispanic deep South Texas or the Houston area, with its large African American and multihued immigrant population, this is Trump country. In Aransas County, about 74 percent of voters supported Donald Trump. Boarded-up windows at a business near Rockport marina are painted with the words “Bet they blame Trump” beside an American flag.
Dennis Finner, 50, said he wishes he had seen President Trump when the latter visited the area last week.
“I am glad Trump set his feet here,” Finner said. “Is he doing a good job at helping? I have no idea. I don’t even have a TV anymore.”
For Finner, the self-reliance he so values is eluding him in the wake of the storm. He does not like depending on government or charity.
“There is nothing like working hard with your hands all your life only to have everything you worked for taken away in a few hours,” he said. “I ain’t never taken anything from the government — no handouts or nothing. And now there are people by the side of the road giving out free hamburgers, and I’m eating them. It just hurts. It makes me feel like a bum.”
Finner lost his trailer, which he said he had just finished paying off, so he is living in a shed on his property. His fences are down, his gate is twisted beyond recognition, and his dogs are running loose in the road. But he won’t consider leaving.
‘We are overwhelmed’
For many residents, the devastation left in Harvey’s wake is testing a deeply held value of self-reliance. Bill Woods, who almost was killed in a motorcycle accident years ago, now lives with a painful limp, one eye permanently shut and a metal plate in his head. Yet the 60-year-old receives no disability payments.
“All the money I have, I make with my own hard work,” he said.
He mows lawns for a living, but wind blew apart the trailer he used to haul his equipment. Harvey also tore apart the trailer where he lives, so he is staying with friends.
“At least the government is here,” he said. “I will have to wait and see if I can get a FEMA trailer to live in or some money to buy another trailer.”
Aransas County Sheriff William “Bill” Mills said that federal aid has been sufficient but that dealing with the multitude of agencies that have descended on the area to help in very specific ways has demanded great coordination.
“We are overwhelmed. We have so much to deal with,” Mills said last week. “The power isn’t even back on, almost every building has been damaged, people are homeless, and we are arresting looters. Our schools have been closed indefinitely. Our teachers don’t have jobs. We had three people with cardiac arrests yesterday. People are trying to clean up, with this heat index and stress that is off the charts.”
‘Where else would I go?’
In Port Aransas — a town of 4,000 that can swell to 70,000 on weekends — the city manager has estimated that every building in town was damaged. Several friends sat in deck chairs in the parking lot of the Place Hotel, whose manager had given them rooms free after their lodgings in an old barn were flooded. The men were shirtless in the hot muggy weather; the women in shorts and midriff tops with packs of cigarettes tucked into their bras and cowboy hats. They were drinking tequila and Jack Daniel’s straight from the bottle — bottles they found floating down the street when the liquor store flooded.
“There were $300 bottles of wine just bobbing down the road,” said John Adams, 57, a cook. “We got some of them, but unfortunately, they put a stop to that.”
Sitting nearby was Timothy Yoke, 53, who lays tile for a living. He rode out the storm, but his apartment was flooded.
“Of course, I will stay,” he said. “I love it here. I love the beach and the weather and the people. Where else would I go?”
In Port Aransas, about 80 percent of the island homes are owned by those from elsewhere, city officials said, making the town a mix of more-prosperous out-of-towners and locals who depend largely on jobs serving tourists.
Many part-time residents also dock boats in Port Aransas. At Island Moorings Marina, crane operators worked to remove dozens of boats from the mud and sand and to retrieve those that had sunk.
Rochelle Rackham, 63, slept in her beached sailboat all night. The oceangoing catamaran had broken away from the docks as the storms surge hit and floated onto dry land.
“I have to sleep here because the boat is so valuable, and I have thousands of dollars of electronic equipment on it,” Rackham said between calls to Lloyd’s of London to iron out insurance details. “A man came around last night and tried to break in, but I pulled my .38 on him, and he ran.”
Rackham, who owns a ranch about 200 miles to the north, said she is not sure she will stick with Port Aransas after the storm.
“I think it would be simpler just to dock her in Cayman,” said Rackham, who said she has sailed solo as far as Turkey and Tunisia on her boat.
George Brown, a commercial real estate broker who owns an oceanfront RV park, said that even though he lives in San Antonio, Port Aransas is part of who he is. Most of the 60 RVs in his park were destroyed, as was infrastructure, but he said he will rebuild.
“We used to come down here when I was a kid for the hurricanes,” he said. “My parents would bring a generator and hook it up. And we would listen to the rain and wind. Hurricanes are part of living on the coast. I’m not leaving.”