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Rebuilding After Harvey: Cowboy Camp David Feeds The Masses In Port Aransas

It’s been just over a month since Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas Gulf Coast. In the storm’s wake, residents of Port Aransas were down but not defeated. People in the small island city banded together to patch up buildings, remove literally tons of debris and feed each other. Today, as we continue our "Rebuilding After Harvey" series, we visited some of the few places providing free hot meals to residents and relief volunteers.

It’s lunchtime, and a line fifty people deep stretches down the sidewalk in a baseball field near the center of Port Aransas.

The ball field is filled with tents, barbecue grills and tables stacked with canned food. A sign at the entrance says "Free Food, Free Water, Free Hugs." Javier Garcia is a volunteer from Padre Island.

Residents and volunteers line up for a hot meal at Cowboy Camp David

“We’re just doing what we can to feed these guys since there’s not many restaurants open. We’re just waiting for the businesses to be able to handle the demand,” he says.

"If people think humanity is dead, they need to come to Port A because it's alive and well here," Port Aransas resident Lisa Templeton

This is Cowboy Camp David. He says the camp started just after the storm, when a man named David brought a barbecue pit and a camper and started cooking. “And then volunteers kept coming and the camp grew and together, it’s huge now,” Garcia adds.

Even after Harvey made landfall, people are still coming here to eat. The storm destroyed or damaged about eighty percent of Port Aransas’s approximately 800 homes. Garcia says many residents' kitchens are inaccessible or out of commission, making the camp a staple in this recovery period.

There’s at least three barbecue pits going today.  Bobby Stevens and his wife came to Port A from San Angelo to help. "And I’ve been doing demolition on houses everyday, and it’s slowing down a little bit so I volunteered to come over here and cook,” Stevens says.

He’s standing over a flat top grill with a mound of pulled pork.

Bobby Stevens heats up donated pulled pork at Cowboy Camp David

“It was cooked and donated by a group of individuals called Roughnecks and Rednecks. I don’t know where they’re from -- around here somewhere. They showed up with three hundred pounds this morning,” he says.

The pork is put into a tray and taken to a serving station with sausage, vegetables and bottled water. More volunteers plate food for people in line. Javier Garcia says just about all this food is donated.

“And somewhere people give just give, you know, twenty dollars, five hundred dollars, a dollar. All amounts, you know, and all that money gets put together and we go to Sam’s Club and buy what we need at that point,” Garcia says.

The closest Sam's Club is thirty miles away, outside Corpus Christi.

In line is Cory Johnson from San Antonio. He’s here working with a contracting company.

“Some people out here don’t have homes no more, and they got somewhere to eat still. They got clothes to give away. This is a blessing, bro. And they’re helping us out, you know what I mean?” Johnson says.

Behind him is Lisa Templeton. Her home was wrecked by Harvey.

“I got almost five and a half feet of water inside the downstairs, and then my ceiling caved in upstairs so my kids lost everything. Their bedrooms were downstairs,” she says.

She’s staying in a hotel at the Schlitterbahn water park about 18 miles away. She says it’s support like this from Camp David that help people keep going.

“ I have no words actually. ‘Thank you’ just does not seem good enough.”

Tears fill her eyes as she grabs a piece of watermelon.

“If people think humanity is dead they need to some to Port A because it’s alive and well here,” Templeton adds.

A few blocks away is Shells Restaurant. It’s an Italian place. It didn’t receive much damage so it was able to operate during certain hours a couple weeks after the storm.

Inside, the night chef takes ten-pound trays of ravioli and plates them in to-go boxes. Heber Stone owns the restaurant with his mother. He says in their first day of providing free food, they made over 300 plates.

A chef plates raviolis at Shells Restaurant for residents in Port Aransas.

“We wanted to just touch base with everybody. That was the most important thing to me -- get back to cooking,  get our employees back to working and then feed everybody,” he says.

Tourism makes up basically 100 percent of Port Aransas’s economy - more than 5 million residents come here each year. Shells is one of ten restaurants now open. There are about 60 restaurants on the island. Stone says it's determination that will bring Port A back.

Shells co-owner Heber Stone

“I don’t think Port Aransas is going to take no for an answer. They’re just going to go for it,  and the people that are here want to see this town get back to normal, and they want to feel that normal feeling themselves,” Stone adds.

Months of repair are on the horizon for just about everyone. The chamber of commerce says about half the restaurants hope to be back in operation sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Until then, volunteers say they’ll try to fill the gaps. 

Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules