Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast one year ago this Saturday. Rockport took the brunt of the storm’s high-speed winds and tornadoes that spun off as it moved inland.
As the city picked up the pieces, one woman decided to help anyone and everyone she could.
The storm destroyed several businesses in Rockport, including Mermaid’s Kitchen, a catering business just down the road from the harbor.
“We started it from zero and it had grown to quite a little thing,” said owner Sam McCrary. “At least one of the tornadoes spawned out of Harvey – it was down on the wharf – at least one of the tornadoes came by and took Mermaid’s Kitchen out. Completely. Nothing left. Nada!”
McCrary was staying with her family at a friend’s house in Nacogdoches. After watching weather reports all weekend, she packed up a trailer with goods and headed back home with her daughters. Her husband and son had left a day before to clear some of the debris around their property.
Then, they set up a tent in the front yard, which became a different incarnation Mermaid’s Kitchen for the next few weeks. She didn't intend for it to be a big thing, she says.
"I knew people were going to need food. We knew people were going to need something to drink. And I don’t like water, so, tea. The answer to everything Southern is sweet tea."
On Aug. 29, they made a meal for about 300 people.
"Not a lot,” she said. “Not a huge deal, but then the next morning, those people came back and brought friends."
The next day, family, friends and volunteers helped add breakfast to the menu. A couple of days later, they were cooking three meals a day.
Those volunteers kept multiplying, but, less than a week after the storm, McCrary had nowhere for them to stay.
She put out a call on Facebook for tents, and they came.
But so did more people looking for a post-storm refuge – about a dozen tents filled with volunteers who had been sleeping in their cars after the storm destroyed their homes.
That's when things got tricky. She realized her home isn't designed to accommodate so many, so they added portable toilets and outdoor solar showers.
Before she knew it, she had 100 people living on the property, and it became known as the Rockport Relief Camp.
The front yard became a drop-off location for food and goods. By the end of October, more than $325,000 in supplies had come through her yard: rubber boots, contractor trash bags, rakes, shovels, hoes – even a shipment of sunless tanning cream.
The camp also served those working elsewhere in the city.
"They would come in and sleep here and then get up in the morning and grab their breakfast," said McCrary. "We would always send them out with an ice chest full of waters and Gatorades. And they would go out and start at one end street and work their way down the street clearing yards. And they would come back in for dinner.”
And as the situation around the city improved, the Rockport Relief Camp began upgrade – slowly, but surely.
A food truck arrived to replace the tent. A refrigerated trailer was donated for nine months to store the food. And some of the tents gave way to RVs.
McCrary and her family got used to the circus that had grown up around them in just weeks – really, really used to it.
"So, I had my normal PJs on instead of a T-shirt and underwear and I stepped out the back door – not even thinking – I stepped out the back door to dump my coffee grounds and I look up and there’s like 60 people," she said. "And I’m like, ‘Morning, gang!’"
A year later, McCrary still has nine people living on her land, though she is trying to wind down the Rockport Relief Camp.
But where will those last few will go?
"A lot of folks are still struggling here," said newly appointed Intergovernmental Coordinator for the Aransas County Long Term Recovery Group Randall Freeze. "A lot of folks are still in shock and a lot of folks are just grateful that they’ve made it this far."
Freeze says, even if you were fully insured, you would be lucky to get back what you lost by now. Not to mention the town's downsized workforce has hamstrung efforts to rebuild and re-staff businesses that have bounced back.
"We’ve had 600 apartments that are out of business – apartment units," he said. "So, that’s at least 600 families that are out the area, and typically those folks were in the workforce."
Freeze is part of a pilot program launched by the governor last year intending to cut through storm-related red tape from the federal and state governments.
But even one-stop shops hit snags, like lining up insurance funds for rebuilding funded by FEMA, the state and private entities.
While the state freed up money this summer to rebuild low-income, multi-family housing in Rockport, that project is just getting off the ground.
And McCrary says the rebuilding efforts persist, with the work far from done. Still, the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce has been pushing to lure tourists to Rockport this summer, McCrary says.
"We get all these glossy, shiny ads out there and we see the country club and we see rebuilding in other places, in other parts of town and we think, ‘Oh, everybody is fine,’" she said. "Get in an airplane, fly over, then tell me how many blue roofs you see. Rockport is not OK. It’s only been a year."
But she says she's still hopeful, which is why she is closing down the campground and growing the relief effort in a more sustainable direction.
The nonprofit work will live on in what she is calling a "Christmas event."
The remaining nine tenants will be making other arrangements soon. And her catering business is open once again – headquartered in the American Legion Hall for now – but soon, she says, she’ll be in a brick-and-mortar building on the other side of her three and a half acres.