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ROCKPORT RISING UNBOWED BY DISASTER, A CHERISHED BAYSIDE COMMUNITY REBUILDS

Story by June Naylor / Photographs by Dave Shafer

Checking into The Inn at Fulton Harbor near Rockport, a cheerful blond woman has brought a basket of cookies to share with the other guests. She turns to me and my husband, who are in line behind her, and offers some to us. Cut in the shape of Texas, each cookie is iced in bright blue and artfully emblazoned with white letters that spell “Rockport Strong.”

Ruin and renewal in Rockport.

Wherever my husband and I go during a recent long weekend, the same slogan on T-shirts and signs and water bottles reassures that yes, this seaside town—battered by Hurricane Harvey a little more than six months prior to our visit—is not just back from the near-dead; it is alive and kicking. Certainly, much work lies ahead, but progress is steady and, most assuredly, strong.

This seaside town is not just back from the near-dead; it’s alive and kicking. Much work lies ahead, but progress is steady and, most assuredly, strong.

Many residents were still shell-shocked when we previously visited Rockport in late September, a month after the storm. They were also grateful to the power company for bringing out-of-state teams to restore electricity quickly, and we heard time and again how H-E-B fed thousands of meals from mobile kitchens to displaced and hungry folks. Mostly as we drove around this peaceful place I’ve adored since childhood, we were stunned at the mountains of home ruins and vestiges of families’ lives piled on the roadsides, often mixed with thousands of tree branches, stumps, tangled fences, and light poles. It’s markedly different this weekend. Though much refuse remains on the highway median, the mounds of detritus are shrinking, and the widespread war-zone look has faded.

Marsha Hendrix, Fulton Mansion site manager.

Sue Anne Brewer, the cookie-bearing guest at the Fulton inn, tells me her family visits Rockport-Fulton from their home in Bishop, just south of Corpus Christi, as often as eight times per year. Like me, she became a regular as a kid, back when Texans began building resort homes in the Rockport seaside development Key Allegro. Her passion for Rockport has only strengthened since the hurricane, Brewer says; she’s returned numerous times and, like hundreds of veteran Rockport visitors, has helped friends rebuild and sent word via social media as to what others can contribute to residents who lost their homes or sustained significant damage to them. “I was here the day the Sugar Shack reopened,” Brewer says, referencing a popular saloon. “It was amazing to see people reunited with friends they were worried about. There were a lot of tears.”

RIDING OUT THE STORM

Craig Griffin built The Inn at Fulton Harbor in 2002 after a career in marine biology and geophysics. He’d already purchased Charlotte Plummer’s Restaurant, which sits right on the harbor, in the late 1990s. When Harvey bore down, Griffin made the decision with a couple of friends to ride out the storm in an upstairs room at the inn, knowing he’d built a solid place that would survive. “Let me be clear,” he says, remembering the harrowing night six months before. “I do not recommend staying for a hurricane when evacuation has been ordered.” The inn stood firm, but water damage shuttered operations for more than three months while contractors restored the 44 guest rooms and a cottage with new insulation, Sheetrock, flooring, cabinetry, and furniture. The result? Beautiful quarters with fine, white bedding and, at the foot of our bed, an impressive oak bench made from 60-to 100-year-old fallen trees that Griffin couldn’t bear to see trashed.

Nearby in Rockport, hotelier Jatin Bhakta experienced his 15 minutes of fame during Harvey when storm chasers captured a large hotel wall crashing down at his year-old Fairfield Inn. When we met Bhakta last fall, he was just reopening his La Quinta after storm cleanup. He aims to reopen the Fairfield Inn in October, but work on his Fulton Hampton Inn will last until next year. Meanwhile, his La Quinta—which has poolside cabanas and suites with kitchenettes—is doing a brisk business.

Within walking distance to historic downtown Rockport, Angel Rose Bed and Breakfast suffered only minor damage and reopened within two weeks after Harvey. The 1881 Victorian home has a storied history as a port in the storm; during the Corpus Christi hurricane of 1919, up to 200 townsfolk sought refuge in the home’s second story.

Popular rental properties in the Key Allegro area, near downtown on a little island in Aransas Bay, remain mostly in limbo; many were taken to the ground and await rebuilding, a process hindered by insurance issues and availability of construction workers. “I’m told most of these homes and condos won’t be ready again until 2019,” says property manager Cindy Grieves, noting that of some 200 rentals, only about 50 survived.

THE BIRDS ARE BACK

Tommy Moore, owner and captain of the Skimmer, the primary birding and nature tour boat sailing from Fulton Harbor, is one of the friends who endured the storm with Griffin at the Fulton inn. He’s still restoring his house and says business is down about 40 percent, even as birds have continued to flock to the region: “The whooping cranes don’t know there was a storm,” Moore says.

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, the birding site most often visited by the Skimmer, survived the storm, though some natural habitats were blown away, and several structures were damaged or destroyed. On a Saturday birding trip, we see dozens of the exquisite, rare whooping cranes, which return to Canada by mid-spring. Our fellow birders, making up an enthusiastic bunch with fine camera equipment, are here from Manitoba and Boston, Utah and Nebraska, New Jersey and Miami, and even Sweden. In three hours, we spot several dozen species of duck, crane, heron, osprey, egret, ibis, spoonbill, loon, and kingfisher. Back in town, we also visit one of the Aransas Pathways birding trails with a boardwalk over a wetlands pond and spy still more happy feathered friends on a site that escaped damage. Fishing guides say they’re pulling in plenty of great fish; they just need the visitors to come back.

Around the Rockport area, the surviving live oaks are fully green again, and wildflowers carpet roadsides, brightening scenery even where there’s a damaged home or business whose future seems sadly uncertain. Over on Goose Island, the magnificent centuries-old live oak known as the “Big Tree”—one of the oldest and largest trees in Texas—remains in fine form, though some of its younger, smaller relatives didn’t survive.

COASTAL CULTURE

The stately Fulton Mansion, an 1877 wonder built by a structural engineer to withstand the most ferocious storms, has endured its share of hurricanes. The three-story state historic site experienced significant water damage coming from the roof down. Architects arrived almost immediately to begin a likely 18-month, $1 million restoration process.

“I couldn’t stomach it being closed,” says site manager Marsha Hendrix, who describes the brutal week spent bringing all the soggy furnishings, antiques, and artifacts out of the house. “Our community needs its attractions open, so we are asking people to come see it as we work.”

Texas Maritime Museum (left) and the Rockport Center for the Arts.

Nearby in the Rockport harbor, the Texas Maritime Museum has replaced its ruined roof and cleaned the flooded interiors. No artifacts were destroyed. “We took the opportunity to expand and update exhibits, change the flow and make the whole place look like new,” says Curator Phil Barnes, who reopened the museum in April.

Elena Rodriguez, curator of the Rockport Center of the Arts

Just a block away, the 130-year-old building that houses the Rockport Center for the Arts was far less fortunate. Horrific damage to the roof and walls forced the gallery to move to new digs in a stucco building a half-mile away, in what’s becoming a revived downtown Rockport. Curator Elena Rodriguez says the art center’s sculpture garden is due to move to the center’s new home, and a full schedule of exhibitions is already underway. Art center traffic grows, as do businesses downtown, such as the new Rock Bottom Park and Pub a few doors away. “Whenever a place reopens or a new place arrives, we all celebrate,” Rodriguez says. “All I can see are improvements.”

BAIT AND BOUTIQUES

Family-run Flower’s Shrimp Market, the busiest bait shop and fish market in Rockport, was out of commission for about five weeks after the storm while owner Flower Bui (pictured above) replaced her commercial building’s roof and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. Her cleanup was significant, having lost a large quantity of frozen fish. Operating her shrimping boat 80 miles up the coast in Palacios, she’s now selling more shrimp to her local clientele, and she’s the bait queen for most anglers and fishing charter operations. “Anyone who’s serious about fishing goes to Flower,” says her patron Wes Williams, a part-time resident. “She also sells the best fish within a hundred miles for people cooking at home.”

As for serious shopping aficionados, both the local and visiting variety, head to the Bay Window. Owner Julia Dutton reopened her store near the downtown waterfront about four weeks after the hurricane, putting her employees back to work as soon as she replaced her damaged air-conditioning units and exterior. When we met last September, she was relieved that while sales were down, the Bay Window was still enjoying a little foot traffic. “People find a little bit of normal by just getting out of the house and coming into the store,” she said. Revisiting this trip, I can’t get in and out without buying bracelets and a gauzy summer top. Living here would be dangerous for me; I see why Bay Window remains a go-to boutique.

SEASIDE DINING

A devastated kitchen wouldn’t keep Jim Riedel from reopening his sizable Paradise Key Dockside Bar & Grill as quickly as possible. In late September, Riedel brought a food truck to the huge parking lot adjacent to his restaurant and set up picnic tables where diners could eat. Not wanting to lose his employees, he launched an abbreviated menu and kept the cocktails flowing. “We’re not only not leaving, we’re doubling down,” Riedel promised last fall, talking about plans to enlarge the entire operation. Guests ate burgers and the like, with a view of quiet waters—nobody dared move their boats through the Intracoastal Waterway beside the restaurant with so many sunken boats hidden just beneath the surface—and of the smashed-up, five-story boat stack next door, where George Strait and hundreds of other owners had stored their watercraft. Returning this trip for dinner, we find Riedel seating customers and servers hustling orders out of the spanking-new kitchen to at least 90 guests in the rebuilt dining rooms. The blackened snapper, caught nearby, is exceptional; the fried shrimp gets two thumbs up. Riedel says he’s happy to be serving such a supportive crowd but, like all restaurants, needs more employees to keep up with booming business.

Jim Riedel, general manager of the Paradise Key Dockside Bar & Grill.

John Raley, owner of Moondog Seaside Eatery in Fulton, also determined to keep his employees at work, reopened in November. His place sustained up to $250,000 in damage, and several pieces of kitchen equipment had to be replaced. “It’s a miracle the building was pretty much unscathed, though we heard reports it had been leveled,” says Raley, who evacuated to Luling during the storm. “I’m a big believer in prayer.”

Enjoying a platter of fresh oysters and a bowl of gumbo one sunny afternoon on this spring trip, we breathe in the sea air and toast the fishing boats bringing their day’s catch to the pier next door. Just a few steps from our room, we revel in a dinner on the upstairs deck at Charlotte Plummer’s, which Griffin reopened two weeks after the storm. The cool starter of lump crab and avocado with Crab Louie dressing and a plate of spicy grilled shrimp goes down easily with wine by the glass. The reflection of a full moon shimmers on the water beside us, setting the mood for a quiet dinner date far removed from the fury of the storm.

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For visitor information and updates on reopening businesses, contact the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce, 319 Broadway St. Call 361-729-6445 or 800-242-0071; rockport-fulton.org

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A lifelong Rockport devotee, Fort Worth-based writer June Naylor is heartened to see the community on the mend. Photographer Dave Shafer of Richardson was awed by the magnitude of the hurricane’s aftermath.

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