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Blown away: On the Texas Coast, a recovery haunted by the past

Jeremy Schwartz, Austin American-Statesman on

Published in Weather News

But Harvey left its back half sagging and leaning at an unnatural angle. Palm fronds and shattered glass littered its rooms, and lace curtains fluttered next to the big porch with sweeping views of Copano Bay and Rockport.

"To me, it looks gone," said Bayside native Kenneth Wiginton, whose grandparents worked at the mansion when it was a hotel. "I hope not. The mansion is everything, not just to Bayside. It's the biggest old mansion in the county. It's going to be a big loss for the whole community."

Wiginton grew up in Bayside during the 1950s, mopping the grocery store with kerosene and water (it made the floors shine and kept away bugs) and working in the surrounding cotton fields (there was no shade, but plenty of yellow jackets and snakes). He remembers when the town had a semipro baseball team and the players would surround the field with their cars to illuminate it for night games.

He said that even before the hurricane, the city's recently enacted building regulations prohibiting some manufactured homes and trailers, and an influx of wealthier retirees had created an affordability crisis of sorts. When he retired from a career with Kodak a decade ago, he couldn't afford to buy a retirement home in Bayside and instead chose nearby Woodsboro, he said.

"It will be hard for people here rebuilding. There are so many people here on fixed incomes," he said.

Driving past ruined homes on a recent afternoon, Wiginton, who moved away decades ago for work, said he's unsure what the future will bring.

"I don't know," he said. "I'm scared. I'd love to see this town survive. This is where my heart is."

Seadrift: 'It's always bounced back'

Tommy Nguyen started over once before, but he was a much younger man back then. Nearly 40 years ago, the former South Vietnamese soldier left his home behind, got on a boat and eventually became one of thousands of Vietnamese refugees who landed on the Texas Gulf Coast.

He settled in the small fishing village of Seadrift, a town of 1,500 about an hour north of Bayside. He was a fisherman back in Vietnam, as were his father and grandfather before him, and he carved out a humble but solid life in the bays of the Gulf. Decades of crabbing and shrimping took a toll on his body; he retired from the sea in 2005 with chronic knee, shoulder and back injuries.

Now, at 73, he faces another do-over. The trailer he and his wife have called home for more than 20 years is one of dozens in Seadrift destroyed or heavily damaged by Hurricane Harvey. The trailer's roof collapsed in several places, letting in rainwater that is rotting his bedrooms. A construction crew told him the trailer isn't salvageable. FEMA has offered him $2,000 in emergency relief funds, not nearly enough to start over, he said.

He and his wife sleep at a friend's house; his wife has stopped coming to the trailer altogether. The smell of mold and chemicals, the ruined bedrooms, the old photos on the wall are too painful. His seven children have left Seadrift and live in the Austin area.

"This trailer was good for us, but now it's gone," Nguyen said on a recent morning. "I don't know how to live anymore. I'm feeling too old to (start over) again."

The next evening, the Seadrift City Council met for the first time since Hurricane Harvey in its modest City Hall, which at least one council member called home during the storm.

The officials, still exhausted after weeks of little sleep, considered what they'd been through. Police Chief Leonard Bermea Jr. said his department worked around the clock but didn't write a single ticket during those chaotic days. The department reported no incidents of looting but dealt with a handful of fender benders involving residents who were "completely stressed out."

"We had to go from policing to helping," he said.

Mayor Elmer Deforest recounted his experience directing the recovery effort from South Africa, where he had been on a work assignment when the hurricane hit. He remembered watching the approach of the storm on the news, the eyewall headed directly for his city. At the last moment, he said, the satellite imagery showed Harvey jog a few miles to the south.

"It spared us from the very worst," he said, his voice catching in his throat. For a few moments the chambers grew still, as residents and council members dabbed their eyes.

Deforest worries that more difficult times lie ahead for his city, where more than half the structures were damaged by the storm.

"We're a small city so we're heavily reliant on property tax," said Deforest, explaining that about half the city's $600,000 general fund comes from property taxes. That tax revenue could be considerably reduced after next year's appraisals. Meanwhile, some residents whose homes were destroyed aren't expected to pay their taxes at all this year.

With the city's finances already on the razor's edge, Deforest said he's taking a cautious approach to seeking FEMA relief funds, which require a 10 to 25 percent match from the city and must be paid up front.

"We don't have those funds," he said. "We've had to turn away contractors because of the lack of funds up front. I tell them there's no guarantee FEMA will reimburse us. I'm not going to take that chance."

The city's immediate needs are basic: about $25,000 for emergency fixes to a water well and wastewater plant. The city's harbor, in many ways its economic lifeblood, also took a beating with a dozen boats sunk or smashed.

Herbert Edwards, "Shorty" to his family and friends, stood chest deep in waters glistening with rainbow streaks of motor oil and gasoline as he tried to diagnose the problem.

"This one is pretty tough because the ass end of it is beat up against the pier," he explained.

Shorty was trying to pull a large oyster boat free from the Seadrift harbor, where it's been submerged since the storm. The longer the equipment sits underwater, the less likely it is to be salvageable, and Shorty and his family are hoping the boat's engine is still intact. A used one costs as much as a Toyota Corolla.

"It makes me hyperventilate to think about a new one," said Shorty's wife, Brenda.

In all, the family lost three boats to Hurricane Harvey. One torpedoed through the Seadrift bait shop's walls and was marooned on the shore; the family was able to pull up the third, a smaller oyster boat, from the harbor.

The family depends on the boats for income, especially during oyster season, which begins Nov. 1.

"We make our living from the bay," said Shorty, who's been fishing here for 32 years, despite a bulging disc in his back.

Shorty, usually quick with a joke, grew serious when he remembered first seeing the devastation in the harbor after the Edwardses returned from San Marcos, where they had ridden out the storm. "What can you think?" he said softly.

"It's surreal to see your business destroyed, if not completely," Brenda said.

The Edwardses have two smaller boats that they use to fish for piggy perch, a local bait fish. Those boats survived the storm at the family's Seadrift home.

"It's kind of questionable what the next step is," Shorty said.

The Texas General Land Office has announced it is teaming up with the U.S. Coast Guard to remove sunken vessels.

The Edwardses are thinking of applying for a Small Business Administration loan to help them repair their boats; they worry that Seadrift won't get the kind of help other cities will.

"The gravy's thin. This ain't Houston," Shorty said. "We usually get overlooked. There's a lot of small towns that don't get mentioned."

New signs have popped up in Seadrift since the storm. Some are stern. In front of a damaged warehouse, an owner placed a simple warning: "You loot, I shoot." At the First National Bank of Seadrift is a different kind of message from high school students: "Harvey can't take our spirit."

On the city's west side, 32-year-old Quoc Nguyen -- Q to his friends -- sat alongside his mother in their front yard on a recent evening and twisted wire mesh into crab traps. It's a traditional craft, practiced by a few Vietnamese families in town, and the result is an ingenious system that lures crabs in but doesn't let them out.

Neighbors lost hundreds of traps during the storm. Nguyen and his mom are rushing to build a batch of about 100. "Within a week, these things will become income," he said.

Nguyen explained that the Vietnamese community in Seadrift used to be much larger, but most of the young people leave for cities such as Austin and Houston. Nguyen himself has left Seadrift many times but always seems to return.

"This is where I come back to figure myself out," he said. "But there's nothing like home and family."

The town has that kind of pull.

"People just say it's home," Deforest said. "I tried to get away a couple of times, but I always come back, and look at me: I'm the mayor. Some people make home wherever they are, but I sort of revolve back to the small-town life of Seadrift."

Nguyen was born in Vietnam and said he was shocked when he first went to elementary school in Seadrift.

"I saw black, white, Mexican, mixed, all kinds of people," he said. "There's a lot of mixed culture. This whole coast is built up on diversity."

Forty years ago, tensions between Anglo and Vietnamese fishermen made national headlines with the 1979 killing of a white crabber (a jury found a Vietnamese crabber innocent, saying it was self-defense).

Residents say that ugly chapter, chronicled in both documentary and Hollywood films, is behind them. But Nguyen said the hurricane has pulled together people who might not have even talked to each other before the storm.

"You're separated by groups, but when things like this happen, everyone comes together and just throws that all aside," he said. "It's a trial of rebuilding. It's here to make you stronger."

Indianola: A Texas ghost town

The old monument at the entrance to town is weathered and wind-stained. It's still standing, though, even after the latest storm.

But there's no sign of the bustling city that once stood here at the edge of the Powderhorn Bayou -- nothing to suggest that a century ago this was a port city to rival New Orleans, a place where steamships from New York and Boston used to dock, where a generation of immigrants took their first steps on Texas soil.

The city, then the Calhoun County seat, was at the height of its prosperity when the first hurricane hit in 1875, killing hundreds. A second cyclone swept through 11 years later, with an accompanying fire.

The storms finished Indianola as a functioning municipality. Traumatized townspeople moved their county courthouse to the relative safety of Port Lavaca and brought the remaining structures inland to places such as Victoria and Cuero.

"The streets are nameless and the seaweeds grow," Texas congressman Jefferson McLemore wrote in his 1904 poem about the ruined city. "Forever dead! Forever the dream is over."

All that remains are a few old tombstones; a tiny community of retirees, fishermen and vacationers; and a collective memory of what hurricanes can do to a place.

"I think Texas people in general are resilient, but I think the ones that live in the hurricane area are even more resilient," said Tom Bentz, who splits his time between Indianola and Nevada. "They look at the danger and the hardship and take it as an everyday fact of life. ... They see struggle as a part of life."

More recent arrivals talk of the ravages of Hurricane Carla in 1961 and Hurricane Claudette in 2003, both of which made landfall nearby and destroyed homes.

Today, Indianola is digging out once more from the ravages of a Gulf Coast storm after Hurricane Harvey destroyed piers, knocked cottages off their foundations and nearly wiped out the only place to eat in town.

The town's reputation for devastating storms was sealed in 1886, after a second hurricane in 11 years destroyed the place: On its front page, the local newspaper declared Indianola "A City in a Bad Place."

But folks here say they aren't buying any talk of a hex on Indianola.

"I wouldn't say this place attracts hurricanes; it's just the way the weather gods made it," said Kerry Hanselka, co-owner of the Indianola Fishing Marina, which functions as the town gathering space, with live music, a small restaurant and a bait shop. "We were lucky this time. The building is still here, and we are using it as an opportunity to remodel. People thought we disappeared from the face of the earth, but we're still here. We'll keep going."

Indianola has entered Texas folklore as a ghost town -- one website calls it the Queen of Texas Ghost Towns -- but that's not exactly right.

A few living people call Indianola home year-round, and dozens more flock to the town on weekends and summer holidays to fish and relax. Hanselka said his father started taking him to Indianola before the 1961 hurricane.

"We would sit on the pier and catch trout left and right; we'd catch a tubload of fish," he said.

Fishing sites hail the town's abundance of redfish and trout but warn that concrete walls and cisterns from the old town lurk along the shorefront, ready to cause havoc with a fishing line.

The cut in front of the marina leads to three lakes, so the fish there, especially large black drum, are abundant, Hanselka said.

"It's quiet, just real nice and pleasant," he said. "People just have to come down and catch 'em a big fish. People love this place."

David Gibbs, a chemical plant worker from Victoria, has been vacationing in Indianola for decades. A family home was washed away by Hurricane Claudette in 2003; Harvey has claimed the camper that replaced it. Still, Gibbs plans to buy a new camper with his insurance money and says there's nowhere else along the coast he can get a slice of the oceanfront dream for so little.

"To have a piece of land like this so close to the ocean, to my boat, in Port O'Connor would cost $1 million," he said.

Gibbs said he can't afford the types of construction that wealthier residents have begun in Indianola. The palm tree-lined road leading to the marina is filled with large vacation homes built up on concrete piers that appear to have withstood the storm fairly well. But, he said, pointing to a neighboring house up on stilts, "That's pretty much out of reach for regular working folks."

Andres Trejo spent a recent afternoon struggling to move his small cottage back to its original resting place. Harvey had pushed it 6 feet to the right, toppling the concrete blocks on which he had put the house after Hurricane Claudette.

Trejo, a retired construction worker who spends half the year in Michigan, said he's been visiting Indianola for 50 years and bought his own place two decades ago.

"I like it around here. You can relax your brain, not like Michigan," he said. "You come over here, and you forget everything. My blood sugar level goes from 250 to 120."

He hopes one day to pass on his Indianola home to his son.

"Ten years ago I raised it up on these blocks," he remembered, taking a break from his labor. "I said, 'That's never going to happen again.' And now look at me. I'm doing the same thing I was doing 10 years ago."

(Staff writer Tony Plohetski contributed to this report.)

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