Thursday, 9 November 2017

Rockport after Harvey

I'm about to leave the house as I catch the last moments of some feature on the local radio station. People are steering clear of Rockport in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, believing they will only get in the way of the clean-up operation. The woman speaks of coastal businesses trying to get back on their feet but finding it difficult with the usually steady flow of visitors having dried up. 'If ever you felt like driving down to Rockport, maybe stopping by for something to eat,' she concludes, 'they would really, really appreciate it right now.'

I've seen photos of the coastal towns since the hurricane hit back in August, and the devastation has been profound. Byron's family have a couple of houses down there. He drove down to assess the damage on the Monday following, despite radio announcements stating that anyone not local would be ordered to turn their vehicles around. He got through somehow. The damage to the places owned by his family - who seem to have second, third and fourth homes all across the state - was minimal, at least compared to some.

'Let's go to Rockport,' I told Bess. 'This woman on the radio said they need our business, and I've never been to a disaster area.'

I'd kept an eye open for Angela working the tills at HEB, our local supermarket. Her family used to live across the road from us until the landlord sold the place. Angela, her mother, and all their cats moved to another place about a mile away; but Damean, Angela's younger brother, went to live in Rockport with his dad. Damean was a decent kid. He was friends with my stepson and a good influence. He would come over and shake his head at the state of Junior's room.

'You gotta clean this up, dude. No-one can live like this.'

Angela still works in HEB but I haven't seen her in a month or so and I want to find out how things are with Damean down in Rockport. I ask Jennifer, who also works the tills. She tells me she hasn't seen Angela in a while, although she knows that her colleague has to work her hours around school. I suddenly notice that I'm a fifty-year old man enquiring after the private lives of significantly younger - and not unattractive - Latinas who work in my local supermarket.

The weekend comes around and we drive down to Corpus Christi, a few miles from Rockport but more direct for us, being at the other end of a major highway running south from San Antonio. The trip is a little under two hours, and as we approach the coast we keep our eyes peeled for signs of storm damage. There are a few telephone poles which seem to be at a bit of an angle, but it's hard to say whether this means anything; and as we hit Corpus Christi, it really doesn't look like there has been any recent occurrence of anything of meteorological significance. Then we pass the local supermarket, now reduced to a branch of EB. More and more signs are missing letters, but it falls some way short of the carnage we expected. We stop to buy used books at a branch of Half Price, then drive across the water to Padre Island, taking the scenic route.

Actually, it's probably the surreal route more than it is scenic. To my eyes, Padre Island is one of the strangest places I've ever been. Coastal Texas is flat and bordered by a thin strip of barrier island about a mile out to sea, also flat, forming a similarly slender strip of inland salt water extending all the way up to Galveston. The inland waters are calm and expansive, some of them seeming to reach the horizon. Also they are shallow so it's not uncommon to see a lone fisherman in wading boots somehow stood several miles from the shore. The vegetation is of the kind found in flat, hot, windy places; and one of the most distinctive birds is the brown pelican, which is enormous and prehistoric in appearance; and of what dwellings there are, half of them are raised up on stilts. It makes me think of J.G. Ballard's Vermilion Sands.

We cross the inland waters and drive towards the shore. As we pass the Best Western motel we are pleased to note that the giant concrete Mermaids, starfish, and related Neptunian figures of the theme park opposite have sustained no obvious signs of damage. Driving further, then taking the road which follows the coast up towards Rockport, we begin to see Harvey's signature. We follow a long straight road, a geological demonstration of perspective and vanishing points with inland waters to the left, dunes to the right, and very few trees. The leaning telephone poles have now become too much of a thing to be anything other than storm damage, and we begin to pass a few houses, with here and there patches of blue stretched across rooftops where tiles and even beams have been ripped away in the tempest.

Eventually we come to Port Aransas, which is marginally more populous, and here the road is lined with piles of trash and detritus. It takes us a few minutes to work out quite why this should be, and we guess this is the ruined contents of flooded homes and dwellings moved outside to await collection. The realisation is chilling because there's so much of it, and because most of these homes are raised up in the air on thick stilts, ten or twelve feet above ground level. Given that we're less than a hundred yards from the sea front, its hard to imagine the Biblical deluge it would have taken to flood these dwellings on such a scale. There are boats and yachts upside down in the middle of parking lots, but strangely, aside from the occasional blue roof, most of the buildings appear structurally intact.

Bess had been hoping we might get something to eat at the Restaurant San Juan in Port Aransas, because we went there before. The food was good and the owner addressed everyone as boss. We pull up and see that the door is open but the lights are off. Buckets,  stepladders, trestle tables, and an empty parking lot suggest the place is not yet quite back on its feet. We're getting closer to where Hurricane Harvey made landfall, having attained Category 4 intensity.

We drive on, taking the ferry across the inland waters to Harbor Island, then heading north towards Rockport. We begin to see ruined buildings, just piles of bricks, and a fifteen minute tailback on the highway turns out to result from the clean-up operation as a swarm of trucks migrate slowly south, absorbing the disgorged contents of homes. The mountains of trash are the highest we've yet seen, and the local supermarket is reduced to a branch of HE. The strangest thing is that the devastation is far from uniform, with some homes standing untouched amongst neighbours lacking a roof or a couple of walls. Certain stores are open for business, while others barely seem to have anything left worth saving. Each intersection has become a forest of makeshift signs stuck in the ground - roof repair, or we will buy what's left of your home. Something about the signs bothers me.

We make it to the sea front.

The aquarium is a pile of rubble. It's upsetting as we both loved the place, but Bess tells me all of the fish were released or otherwise ferried to safety before the storm hit, which is some comfort, I guess. There's an art gallery near the ruined aquarium where we once made a failed attempt to use the restroom. We had no idea it was an art gallery, there being no signage to that effect, but we took it to be open to the public due to crowds milling around guzzling wine - maybe a bar or something; but it was an art gallery and there was a private view in progress, and no we couldn't use the facilities being as they were reserved for a better standard of person; and now the place was quite clearly screwed, boarded up and not coming back any time soon; therefore boo hoo.

Reminded of our original mission, we continue our search for somewhere to eat. The fast food chains mostly seem to be back on their feet, and McDonald's is even hiring, but the smaller places are clearly struggling, and the first we find is cash only. We pass a collapsed barn which had been a used book store only six months before, and then we are out the other side of Rockport. We turn around, deciding to take a second look at a place we'd passed back on the highway just before the edge of town. It's called the Original Vallarta, acknowledging either a similarly named rival or possibly a fraternal establishment further up the road, and it is bright orange - always a good sign. Menus are painted directly onto the wall, and families are sat within watching sports or telenovelas.

The food is great.

Mission accomplished, we hit the road and return home, wiser and slightly fatter.

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