Harvey recovery: Stories of hope and healing from Port Aransas

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Harvey recovery: Stories of hope and healing from Port Aransas

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Nick Wagner/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
A boat sits on a dock after Hurricane Harvey passed through Port Aransas, Texas, on Sunday, August 27, 2017. Officials continue to keep the city on lockdown, preventing residents from entering the city. Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast as a Category 4 storm, damaging buildings and leaving tens of thousands without power. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Earlier this week, I wrote about Hurricane Harvey’s impact on the small coastal community of Port Aransas and my beloved memories of spending summers there growing up. As soon as I published it, my inbox flooded with emails from people who had similar fond memories of this little town, solidifying my belief that there really is something special about this place. The Port Aransas and Mustang Island Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau shared it on its Facebook page, and readers instantly shared their memories of Port Aransas. 

It brought tears to my eyes, knowing that this place I hold so close to my heart is equally special to so many other people.

Here are some highlights from Facebook comments: 

“Oh my. My first time on the island was 40 years ago when we went on our honeymoon there. Been my favorite vacation spot since then. After we had our sons, we went every year. I am 62 years old and I still get that giddy feeling getting on the ferry. We could take another route to get there but we wouldn't get to ride the ferry - I always want to ride the ferry. We were just there the last weekend of July 2017, tried Virginia's but 2 hour wait. As usual we ate at the Crazy Cajun, shopped at the grocery store, had the grandkids obligatory picture taken in the mouth of the shark, oh so many memories. I plan to go and help rebuild soon.” -- Donna Satterfield Arldt

“Not just a vacation spot. It holds a big spot in my heart. Many happy, carefree times there.” -- Barb Dendinger

“It's a place on earth that is dear to our hearts and soul, a place of meditation and peace and Nature's wonders.” -- Michelle Chaput

“Excellent article! Your description of riding the ferry was so spot on. Last Thanksgiving weekend, as we left on the ferry, I had the joy of hearing our little granddaughter say with breathless joy, "I love this!" And so, the next generation joins the parade.” -- Cheryl Abadie Christians

But the best stories came from my email. As a journalist, it’s easy to abide by the whole “don’t read the comments” golden rule. The internet can be brutal. But as I told some colleagues today, my inbox and comment sections have never been as warm and positive as they have this week. 

A man named Trey Jones emailed me, saying Port A was very special to his family. 

“We too have been going there all our lives and have taken our 2 girls there (15 and 13) almost every weekend of summer as long as they have been alive. We always have a contest to see who can spot the first palm tree. As soon as we get to Aransas Pass it’s windows down for deep breaths. This is a super special place to our family,” he wrote.

When I got to work the day after publishing this story, there was an email waiting for me from a woman named Lorna Reilly, who rode out the storm in Port Aransas.

“We chose to shelter in place. The storm, to our surprise, blew mostly out of the WNW and was one of the most awesome and daunting sights I've ever beheld. I sat on my East facing covered porch and watched (or heard, once power failed) it rend everything in path,” she wrote. 

Reilly said the power failed overnight and when she woke up, she saw downed and snapped palm trees and waded through waist-high water to check on her mother.

“The road underneath my feet feels like slime and sucking muck. About a hundred yards from my Ma's house, I come across her pickup. It's completely upside down and her beloved ridgeback Walter is floating dead, hung half out the window. I began to scream. I'm sure incoherently. I thought she was in that truck! Her house is up high on stilts but She must've heard me, because she opened her front door and said ‘Lorna?’. Needless to say, if I hadn't been in thigh high sewage, I'd've sunk to my knees! Running up those stairs and hugging her was one of the most grateful moments of my life! Turns out, my Mom tried to leave- had loaded her dogs and bags up- when the Bay rushed in and swept her vehicle away. She had no choice but to return to her house with her remaining dog and shelter in place,” Reilly wrote.”

Reilly has chosen to open her properties to shelter others, and now, she says, she’s housing 15 people, five dogs, four cats and one bird in her rental properties.

“The Island has pulled together and volunteers and locals are working side by side through the filth and debris to reclaim some semblance of order. The outpouring of support has been amazing! The Natonal Guard, FEMA, police and firefighters from all over the state are here helping. Surf camps, restaurants, churches, realities, doctors and our children are here wading through the filth to uncover our Island. Ordinary people from all over Tx-who perhaps feel what you had expressed in your article about this incredible place- are standing beside us and making a difference EVERY day. It is my intention in tell you that we aren't going anywhere! The same locals I used to see at Juan's Taqueria are going to work! They are determined to rebuild and stay here,” she wrote.

Reilly’s story struck me. Her bravery, her compassion, her positivity. How could one remain so positive and peaceful in a time of such devastation? But I realized -- it’s because she lives in Port Aransas. She’s one of the people who has always been warm and kind to me when I visit there. There’s something magical about that place. Something in the water, in the Gulf air. 

She challenged me: “Cry for us, yes. I have so many tears yet shed for when the work is done. But ORGANIZE! Don't forget about us! We need a sustained effort to restore this Island. We need volunteers. What can YOU do to make sure this beautiful funky place still exists?”

I pledged to her to get myself down there as soon as I could, to bring help, to do whatever I could to tell stories like hers to make sure the people of Port Aransas are not left to rebuild alone. After all, this is what Texans do, right? We come together to help our neighbors. All of the stories I’ve heard out of Port A this week have confirmed to me everything I’ve always known about that place – that the people there are resilient and strong and open-hearted and kind, and always willing to lend a helping hand. It’s inspiring to watch. And if there’s anything good that came out of this awful event, I think it’s that.

Oh, and in case you were wondering about my favorite bar in Port A -- a man named Alan Clower of Corpus Christi sent me this email: “I'm happy to report that Shorty's is already open. I had a few longnecks there last night.”

Cheers, Port Aransas.

WATCH:

The coastal city of Port Aransas, Texas, is on lockdown as officials asses the destruction made by Hurricane Harvey when it hit as a Category 4 storm on Saturday night.
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