Three months after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, the Texas Coastal Bend is still far from back to normal. The Category 4 storm delivered winds of 130 mph that battered Aransas County communities, and many residents there are still without housing.
The Texas coastal towns of Rockport and Fulton shared all the destruction and misery Harvey brought. They also share a boundary line, where you’ll find The Shack Seafood Restaurant and Barbecue Smokehouse.
Harvey ripped the roof off the eatery. That repair work still needs some finishing touches, but the Shack is back open. Customers are flowing in, and they all seem to want to talk about one thing: the storm.
Loretta Patterson, a waitress at the restaurant, shares her story as easily as pouring sweet tea.
“We had a picket come through our house — a fence picket. Through the back – into my house – out the front. Like a missile. Lots of water damage,” she said while swiping through images of her damaged home on her phone.
Patrick Garza, the Shack’s owner, said for many hourly workers in the area, there was no point in staying put.
“I lost four out of my kitchen. … Their apartments were destroyed and there’s nothing to rent. You can’t rent a place here,” he said.
Meanwhile, a tent city has sprung up on State Highway 35 leading into Fulton. At the entrance, there’s a large hand-painted billboard with the U.S. and Texas flags. It reads: “Rockport Relief Camp,” “Hot Food Hot Coffee,” “Donations and Supplies,” and “Free Help.”
“I used to have the absolutely gorgeous 3-1/2 acres covered in fantastic live oak and grass,” said Sam McCrary, owner of the property.
She said it looks a lot different now.
“Our décor is early mid-century junk yard,” she said.
There’s an organized chaos here. Open boxes of donated food and cooking equipment are stacked on tables that sag under the weight. There’s a dining room table under one tree heaped with donated used shoes. One tent canopy is called the office — that’s where there’s internet access, stacks of papers and written on a board is “Lights out at eleven” in big bold letters. There’s also a food truck where most of the cooking takes place and on the door is a handwritten sign that says, “Sam for Mayor.”
That’s because, after the storm, McCrary saw how people’s lives were “turned completely inside out, upside down and backwards,” she said.
She hadn’t planned to set up a relief camp at her house, but she realized somebody had to do something.
“People had lost homes; they weren’t going to have a place to sleep. We knew that there were going to be people who weren’t going to have access to water or food – especially hot meals,” she said.
For eight weeks, McCrary said she provided more than 1,000 meals a day.
“People started coming to get supplies, pick up tents and sleeping bags and cots. ... They were getting kicked off the beach. They couldn’t camp there. So we just decided to just pitch your tents out here in the front,” she said.
McCrary said the population has dwindled to about 35, but was up to 80. Some guests are children who run around the camp, chasing chickens and riding bikes.
But McCrary plans to fold the relief camp on Dec. 5.
“We’ve always required people to have jobs,” she said. “We don’t charge anyone to stay here, eat or for supplies, so they should be ... able to get on their feet.”
But go where? That’s the problem. It’s the one Maria Gomez faces, too.
“I lost everything. I lost my house and everything,” she said, after coming out of the Rockport FEMA Disaster Recovery Center.
“I’m still at a FEMA hotel. I’m trying to find, I’m telling them, even a trailer or something. There’s nothing really out there," she said. "They gave me a list of potential apartments but they’re all full. And so it’s hard."
More than 47,000 people are still homeless after Harvey and are living in hotels paid for with FEMA vouchers. On Monday, FEMA announced it is extending those vouchers to Jan 16.