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Feature

Back to the Beach

The Texas coast, battered by Hurricane Harvey in some spots, perseveres and lures beach dwellers and visitors alike

I have always wanted to touch the very edges of Texas—to stand on the corners of this great state to see what I could see. After Hurricane Harvey, the mission became a quest to see what’s still standing along the Gulf after the largest storm in state history.

When Harvey made landfall August 25, 2017, in the San Patricio EC service area, the Category 4 storm ravaged the central coast before dumping biblical torrents of rain on Houston, Beaumont and some East Texas co-ops. The Texas Gulf Coast has seen more than 40 hurricanes in the past century, but Harvey tops the list of damage inflicted, with estimates of $125 billion, far outpacing second-place Hurricane Ike’s $30 billion in 2008.

My Gulf Coast trip begins in early January at the point where the Rio Grande merges into the Gulf of Mexico. I drive through Brownsville, past Magic Valley Electric Cooperative, and I play hide-and-seek with bits of a border wall as I drive south on Boca Chica Boulevard, State Highway 4.

I stop at the historic marker for the Battle of Palmito Ranch. This remote patch of coastal marsh, salt prairie, mesquite and palm is the site of the last land battle of the Civil War. More than a month after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Union troops advanced to retake Brownsville from the Confederates they thought were retreating. The battle of advances, retreats and skirmishes lasted a few hours, but the Union lost more than 30 soldiers. The Confederates won the day, but the war was already lost.

Just a few miles farther, the Gulf of Mexico opens up, wide and sunny. I take a right onto Boca Chica beach, and in another mile or so, the Rio Grande is shallow and muddy. Black skimmer terns congregate in the middle of the river while herons and egrets stalk the shallows. I wave across the water, a dozen short yards to Mexico, where families and fishermen enjoy their day at the beach. A family visiting from Toronto drives up from the Texas side, curious to see the much-debated border. We sit and watch the birds, the cast of fishing nets, the steady breeze off the Gulf, then slowly drive back down the beach.

It’s three hours north on U.S. 77 to Padre Island National Seashore, where I pitch a tent for the night on South Beach. This 70-mile stretch of coastline is the longest undeveloped barrier island in the world. You need four-wheel drive to make it past the five-mile marker, but even a couple of miles down, the beach feels isolated. I find a flat spot at the base of the dunes and settle in for a gorgeous sunset. A half-mile away, I spot a family who ascends the dunes and marvels at the color and expanse of the Texas sky. The Gulf waters turn a shadowy blue as the heavens take on pastels of pink, purple and orange.

In the morning, I take my coffee on a bench of driftwood and watch a great blue heron wade through the waves in search of breakfast. At the national seashore’s Malaquite Visitor Center, I find a ranger-led birding tour starting on the expansive deck. Patrick Gamman, chief of interpretation, tells me they dodged a bullet with Harvey. “I expected to come back and see nothing of the visitor center, but Harvey moved just a little bit north and hit Rockport instead.” The park reopened three days after the storm with minor damage to the bayside campgrounds.

2018 marks the 40th year the park has been protecting and releasing sea turtles. Kemp’s ridley hatchlings emerge from late June through mid-July and crawl their way into Gulf waters. This is the only place in Texas where five of the seven species of sea turtles can be found.

Just 20 miles farther north, Mustang Island was not so lucky. Harvey destroyed the bathhouse and damaged roads, jetties and campgrounds. Port Aransas, Corpus Christi and Rockport also suffered major damage. Now, four months after the storm, piles of debris line the roads as families and businesses gut their wind- and water-damaged structures. Everyone is in a hurry to be up and running by spring break.

In Port Aransas, Harvey’s winds peaked at 132 mph, and the damage increases in size and scope. No one is untouched, but everywhere there is renewal. The salty smell of the Gulf is interrupted by roofing tar and sawdust. The sounds of hammers and power tools punctuate the cries of gulls. A new fleet of shiny, candy-colored golf carts awaits beachgoers.

The Port Aransas Museum complex includes a kit house erected in the early 1900s that has survived seven hurricanes, including the 1916 storm that wiped out much of the city. Rick Pratt, museum director, says staff prepared the buildings then evacuated and hoped for the best.

“Once we got back into town, we got a lot of volunteers together and we worked 85 or 90 straight hours,” Pratt says. The group removed 3 inches of mud in the boat shop and salvaged what tools they could. “We’re open. We’re not repaired, but we’re open.

“We’re all in the same boat. If there’s a nice part, it’s that we all pulled together and that we’re pretty tough.”

Historic photos lining the walls show resilient islanders recovering from previous storms, the surf culture of the 1960s and 1970s, and the fishing industry that goes back to the 19th century.

Farley Boat Works, an extension of the museum a few blocks away, suffered structural damage and flooding. The active boat-building workshop honors the history of the Farley family, which produced hundreds of wooden skiffs and other craft from 1915–1970. Boat works manager Frank Coletta gives me a short tour of the workshop. A dirty waterline marks the peak of the flood 2 feet above the floor. They already have replaced tools and reopened classes where kids and adults can make model boats, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and full-sized skiffs.

Drinking coffee on a picnic table outside are volunteers Steve Potter and George McDermid, winter Texans from Michigan. The two have been helping build and repair boats at Farley for several years. “If God had intended boats to be made of fiberglass, he would have planted fiberglass trees,” explains McDermid. “Plastic boats are for nothing,” agrees Potter. “Working with wood gets in your blood.­ We started coming down here in 2002.”

North of Port Aransas, the coastal oaks are stripped of leaves and limbs. A huge pile of debris lines the median of State High-way 35. The pile is crushed down daily, but the mountain is substantial and still growing as rebuilding continues.

In Rockport, the Fulton Mansion State Historic Site is closed for repairs to the roof while the education center and interactive exhibits remain open. This stately home from the late 1800s has seen many storms over the years and will see many more to come. At nearby Goose Island State Park, the 1,000-year-old live oak called the Big Tree survived the winds and rain even as dozens of younger trees fell.

Galveston is famously the site of the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, when the hurricane of 1900 came ashore as a Category 4. The residents had little warning of the approaching storm that destroyed most of the town and killed at least 6,000 people. The Galveston Historical Foundation shows a 30-minute documentary called The Great Storm at Pier 21 Theater with photos and voices narrating eyewitness accounts.

The Moody Mansion and Gresham’s Castle offer visitors a glimpse of Galveston’s gilded era in the East End Historic District. The Gresham family welcomed hundreds of survivors into their home, later called Bishop’s Palace, after the 1900 hurricane. The ornate architecture and stained-glass windows give the aura of a royal residence.

Nearby Reedy Chapel and Ashton Villa witnessed another great moment of American history. On June 19, 1865, Union Gen. Gordon Granger read aloud, according to some accounts, from the balcony of the villa General Order No. 3, which announced the total emancipation of all slaves, more than two years after it was first issued by President Abraham Lincoln. The order was read again on the steps of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, later called Reedy Chapel.

Down on the seawall, teenagers rush to the Historic Pleasure Pier for rollercoasters and bumper cars. As the sun sets over the water, the lights from the midway splash across the quickly darkening waters.

Back on the mainland, I head to Beaumont to visit the birthplace of the Texas oil boom. The Spindletop Gladys City Boomtown Museum memorializes the day in 1901 when the Lucas geyser erupted over 100 feet in the air from the salt dome flats. The population of Beaumont quintupled in a few short months. Land that didn’t sell for hundreds of dollars in 1900 suddenly sold for tens of thousands.

The replica oil town has 15 buildings, blacksmith demos, a barbershop and saloon, gunfights and a geyser blast of water that recreates the Lucas gusher of 1901.

Swamps and bayous become more prevalent the closer you get to the Louisiana border. I drive through what was the epicenter of Harvey floodwaters —more than 60 inches of rain fell in Nederland near Beaumont—to get to Sea Rim State Park. This 4,000-acre marshland offers 5 miles of beachfront and 10 miles of unique paddling trails.

I take a stroll on the ¾-mile Gambusia Nature Trail, a looping boardwalk suspended a few inches above a marsh lagoon. Seaside sparrows and sedge wrens vie for bugs in the waning afternoon light. An alligator slinks through the shallows, momentarily stopping my heart.

I end my Texas coast journey on the beach again, more than 300 miles from the Rio Grande. I have seen miles of debris and hollowed-out homes but also the resilience and perseverance of thousands of Texans.

Learn more about Julia Robinson at juliarobinsonphoto.com.