PORT ARANSAS, Texas (AP) - Wide-eyed children can hardly believe their luck as they enter Winton’s Island Candy, some smudging the glass as they peer into fudge-filled cases while others eagerly pile gummi worms and saltwater taffy into paper bags.
But on the door at Winton’s, which has been a Port Aransas staple since 1995, a thigh-high waterline offers a somber reminder of the hurricane-induced flooding the shop endured last fall.
A sign next to the waterline reads almost like a battle cry: “Port A Strong, through Harvey, hell and high water.”
It’s been six months since Hurricane Harvey ravaged this beach town four hours south of Austin, and nearly 50 percent of its residents are still not back in their homes. But area businesses and tourism officials insist that even though it’s not yet 100 percent, Port Aransas is open for business - and needs visitors now more than ever.
“We’re open, we’re taking reservations,” said Jeff Hentz, president and CEO of the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau. “Our beaches are in really great shape - they were virtually untouched.”
In 2016, Port Aransas welcomed 4.5 million visitors and was on pace to break 5 million in 2017 before the hurricane hit, Hentz told the Austin American-Statesman . He said Harvey’s economic toll on Port Aransas, which typically has a $400 million tourism economy, is expected to exceed $250 million.
By March 15, Hentz said, 23 percent of the city’s lodging inventory - or 780 hotel rooms and vacation homes - should be available. That should increase to 70 percent by June 1, Hentz said, and nearly 90 percent by Aug. 1. About half of the city’s restaurants and shops are open, Hentz said, including landmarks such as the IGA grocery store, Virginia’s on the Bay waterfront restaurant and Shorty’s Place, the self-proclaimed “oldest and friendliest bar in Port Aransas.”
Visitors unsure of what to expect will find relief in the pastel vacation homes that continue to dot the horizon like Easter eggs and the expectant fishermen who line up each morning to cast their lines into the Gulf of Mexico’s choppy waves. There are still plenty of abandoned buildings and construction sites, but most of the amenities tourists demand, from coffee shops to fast-food restaurants, are once again available.
“It’s not been easy, but for us to get this close to normal by June, less than 10 months after the storm, is pretty significant,” Hentz said.
Before Harvey, Port Aransas had 3,500 residents. Right now, about 2,000 people are living there, but Hentz is hopeful that will increase to 3,200 by the summer.
“It’s been emotional and chaotic,” said Mary Salg, manager of the seahorse- and mermaid-adorned Shark Reef Resort, which has housed 106 Port Aransas residents for varying lengths of time since Harvey hit. “People walk in and stand behind the counter and bawl. I’ve learned a lot more empathy than I ever had.”
Raeanne Reed, 53, has been living in a small motel room at the Shark Reef Resort with her cat, Serena, since the hurricane destroyed the house she had rented for years. Her rent at the motel is paid for by a Federal Emergency Management Agency program that provides short-term lodging assistance to evacuees who are not able to return home immediately.
“I evacuated to San Antonio at the last minute, threw my cat on my lap and a bag of clothes. I thought I was going to stay two nights,” said Reed, singer in the Port Aransas band Raeanne and the Ride. Instead, she had to stay in San Antonio for several weeks before she was allowed to return to Port Aransas and could move into the Shark Reef.
“My plan,” she said, “it’s been wiped out with the hurricane.”
In those early weeks, as mosquitoes swarmed, gas pumps ran dry and piles of soggy mattresses lined sidewalks, she filled her time playing music and passing out food - “I was the grape lady,” she laughs - for other displaced residents.
And while she’s growing tired of the omnipresent jackhammers and drills - necessary evils for a town under construction - she maintains she’s where she belongs.
“There’s no place I’d rather be than Port A. I’ve always loved it,” she said. “We’re hanging on. I don’t know where our future is going to lie, but I believe in the island. If you belong here, this island will keep you.”
Evidence of local resilience can be seen throughout town, from a truck spray-painted with the words “Nice try, Harvey” outside the pirate-themed Gaff bar to “Don’t mess with Texas” scrawled over a boarded-up window at Destination souvenir shop. Destination and the famous giant shark that decorates its facade are expected to be ready in time for spring break.
On a recent afternoon at Seafood and Spaghetti Works, a Port Aransas institution for nearly 40 years, employees carried dishes ranging from fried oyster bruschetta to pepperoni pizza to hungry diners. After an extensive renovation that included ripping out all of the insulation, purchasing all new kitchen equipment and replacing all of the tile, the restaurant reopened - with all of its original employees - last month.
Stephanie Kenigsberg, who owns Seafood and Spaghetti Works and its on-site boutique, Stephanie’s Stuff, with her husband, Jay, said the past six months have been overwhelming.
“I think people have gotten so much attention in Houston and Rockport,” Kenigsberg said, “and I think Port Aransas kind of has been left by the wayside.”
Kenigsberg said she and her husband have been so focused on the restaurant that they haven’t decided yet what to do about their house, which was rendered unlivable by Harvey. Sometimes Kenigsberg thinks it would be best to bulldoze the property and start from scratch on a new house, but the memories of raising her five children and welcoming two grandchildren inside those walls stop her short.
For those who want to help, Kenigsberg’s advice is simple: Come down and make new memories in Port Aransas.
“Come support the local places you’ve grown up with,” she said. “Come and eat. We are ready.”
Information from: Austin American-Statesman, http://www.statesman.com
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