The view driving into Rockport, TX on highway 35 is a familiar sight - fields of cotton stretch towards the horizon; lines of wind turbines break through the flat earth; gnarled oak trees encroach on one-lane farm roads off the highway. It’s a typical portrait of South Texas - a beautiful landscape, but not without its sharp edges. It is brutally hot with humidity rarely falling below 80%. There are snakes, stinging caterpillars, wild boar, and coyotes hiding in the shade. Hammerheads, jellyfish and stingrays roam the coastal waters. Ask any resident of this quaint fishing town and they will be the first to tell you this isn’t the easiest place to live, but for ten thousand people this is home, and for the last twelve months the harsh realities of life on the coast have been most clear.
Hurricane Harvey made landfall as a category 4 storm on August 26th, 2017. The city of Rockport took significant damage as the eye of the storm ripped across Aransas County. As residents returned over the following weeks they found their homes and businesses destroyed and began the process of filing claims with their flood and storm insurance companies. What many did not expect is that this process would stretch well into the next hurricane season and beyond. Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, referred to as TWIA, is the “insurer of last resort” for most Texas residents, but as private insurers pulled out of the high-risk gulf region over the years, TWIA was the only option left for homeowners. Over the last twelve months the city of Rockport has received millions of dollars in relief funds and is now advertising that they are ready for tourists to return to their wildlife-rich parks and prime fishing waters. Residents of the town are quick to point out that unless out-of-towners and "snow birds" are prepared to bring their lodging with them, they won’t find much in the way of hotels, restaurants, or local boutiques that used to bring in $100 million in tourism annually. The hoops TWIA is forcing its customers to jump through has drawn out recovery efforts far beyond what this small town could have imagined. For many, the work is far from over.
John Johnson, a commercial bait fisherman, runs his business on the shore of Aransas Bay. Before the storm made landfall Johnson made arrangements to store his boat in nearby Cove Harbor. The category 4 winds did tremendous damage to the drystack his boat was stored in and required the use of a crane to retrieve his boat to get it back out onto the water. Twelve months later Johnson is still in dispute over the fees the marina claims he incurred through the boat retrieval and launch process.
Business has been steady for Johnson as fishing tourism continues to rise. He sells his live bait to fishing guides across the coast. Much of the profit he has seen over the last year however has gone towards making repairs to his own home. "There are only so many hours in the day. I spend the first half of the day on the boat and the second half working on my house. I'm burning it at both ends."
Some of these boats have yet to be removed or repaired and still rest where Harvey left them.
James Rathburn works on repairs to his employer’s vacation home in the Rockport neighborhood of Key Allegro. Because many of the buildings in this neighborhood are second homes, their need for repair is not a priority. For those that reside here year-round, the drive into and out of the neighborhood is peppered with structures in various states of repair and disrepair and empty lots where neighbors’ homes used to be. Nearly all of the condominium complexes in this neighborhood were destroyed and are still under construction.
Rathburn resides in San Antonio, TX. He works part time under a contractor doing work up and down the gulf coast. Demand for contractors has been at an all-time high in the year since Hurricane Harvey. Bids for repairs have skyrocketed as the repair jobs far exceed the number of contractors in the area. Residents are looking at 3-6 month long waiting lists for home and business repairs.
The courthouse for the City of Rockport/Fulton now resides in a former Ace Hardware.
The home of Stephanie Evans and her daughter Alysun Dominguez. Their home experienced eight feet of flood damage during the storm, wiping out their entire first floor. In the weeks that followed most of their possessions had to be thrown away due to severe mold damage. Evans and Dominguez lived without electricity in their home for over a month after the storm.
Dominguez stands in her childhood room. The hole in the ceiling is what remains from a tree limb falling through the roof. This is one of the many repairs still needed in this house. According to Dominguez, the thought of another hurricane of this size and strength worries her and her mother, but they are prepared for it and know that, “it is a risk we take living on the coast.”
Evans sits in her dining room with one of her twelve rescue dogs. Evans works as a waitress at a bay-side restaurant. Being unable to find affordable contractors means that when she is home, her and her daughter work on repairing the house themselves.
Though the cost of rebuilding would be equivalent to buying another home, Evans insists there is no other option. “This is the home I raised my girls in. This is where we built our life. You can’t buy that in a new home”
Residents are not alone in the prolonged rebuilding efforts. The number of small businesses back up and running, including restaurants and hotels, is a fraction of those before the storm in August of 2017.
Kelley Chamblin Muilenburg, wife of Pastor Kevin Muilenburg of Coastal Oaks Church, stands in the doorway of her newly renovated home. She provided insight into her family’s process: “Because our home was unliveable, we were displaced for 9 months. It took several months to prepare the home to be rebuilt, by taking every bit of sheetrock out, cleaning insulation off of every beam and stud, pulling nails out of every stud, removing all trim and baseboards and bathrooms gutted, etc. We hired a builder who began the process with us to rebuild. Getting permits was an ordeal for everybody, because the entire community was trying to obtain permits. Materials were hard to come by and reliable workers were also hard to come by.”
Muilenburg’s opinion on how the hurricane was covered by local and national news outlets was echoed by a number of residents that I spoke to. “During the hurricane, not one major news (outlet) was actually in Rockport reporting what was really happening. And once the hurricane dumped all the rain on Houston, they got all the media attention. It's like Rockport didn't even exist. My daddy says that Houston got the flooding, but Rockport got the bomb. Not many people ever got to see what really happened here.”
In the month following Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, contractors were overwhelmed by work opportunities that took them further up the Texas coast to metropolitan areas like Houston where a higher density of uninsured, lower income households meant more support from federal entities such as FEMA. For contractors, that meant a faster payout at higher rates for materials and service. Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA) has been criticized for undercutting adjusters estimates, who take into account higher costs of materials and services following the storm. Many homeowners unwilling to dispute TWIA's claims have been left to take on repairs themselves.
Jim Parker admires the recent repairs to his roof. After twelve months of back and forth, Parker is battling with the sole Wind Insurance provider for the area, TWIA. Parker is still $25,000 short of the repair costs paid to him by his provider. “This is the game TWIA plays,” states Parker. “They’ve sent me three checks now, and every time I tell them it isn’t enough they slip me back into the appraisal process. They try to wipe out the time clock with delay after delay after delay. If (TWIA) can time it out, then it’s over. If I don’t get my claim in within 180 days, they don’t have to pay me.” In 2013, TWIA reached a $135 million settlement in a suit alleging botched claims for damages caused by Hurricane Ike, failure to reimburse homeowners in a timely manner, and denying or underpaying legitimate claims.
Terry and Jim Parker stand outside their ranch style home, 12 feet above sea level. Though they dodged the storm surge, the category 4 winds caused immense structural damage. After a year of visits from structural engineers, contractors, and adjusters, total costs of repair to their home have totaled nearly $120,000.
"This ain't our first rodeo, and it sure as hell isn't our last."