It has been a long road for Port Aransas. The island city marked the one year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. The tourist destination near Corpus Christi was shut down for months after the storm. Residents gathered Saturday to remember the thousands of people who helped rebuild their town through one act of kindness at a time.
It’s a clear and sunny day on the beaches of Port Aransas. The sand is full of people relaxing under tents or umbrellas. Music from portable speakers and radios fill the air.
It’s hard to imagine a year ago today, the town was empty — evacuated just hours before Harvey came ashore.
Hours after sunrise, outside the city’s marina, a flag raising ceremony honors first responders.
“The police assistance from surrounding towns, the fire departments from Cleburne, and Alpine, and DFW, and Summerville, and Corpus Christi, and Orange Grove, and Annaville,” said Port Aransas Mayor Charles Bujan, reading from a long thank you list.
The city also has an army of civilian volunteers to thank, too, said Ken Yarborough, the recreation coordinator for Port Aransas. He said they came from all over the country.
“And they would meet the residents and they would go into the homes and they would rip the carpet out and they would bring out the appliances and they would rip out the moldy drywall and do all the things you wouldn’t expect all the things total strangers to do for you,” Yarborough said.
On this afternoon, 2,500 decorated paper bags line the sidewalk near the marina. The bags are decorated with the names of people, churches — any group that came to help.
Some are elaborately painted with superheroes in capes, while others have a beach scene complete with palm trees. Yarborough says it’s a way of respectfully giving thanks.
WATCH | More than 2,300 decorated paper bags near the Port Aransas marina
“We didn’t want to have a celebration. We didn’t want to have a party because so many of our residents are still rebuilding or still in flux of some sort,” he said.
Betty Crawford is one of those people not back in her home just yet. Her condo suffered a lot of damage. She wrote about 30 names on two paper bags.
“Some of them gave me leftover furniture — furniture they could do without. And I have a fairly nice little apartment to live in now thanks to a lot of friends, she said. “And it’s got to last me for two years until I can get into my condo again.”
At sundown, an electric candle inside each bag creates a warm, flickering glow. Port A residents and visitors read off names on the bag, reflecting on the days just after the storm. The mood is joyful at times and somber in others. Day and Jim Wheeler, 35- year residents of Port A, said their home suffered heavy damage in the storm.
“By the next day, many of our friends were here standing by our side helping us clean up,” Day Wheeler said.
But what really struck Wheeler, was the kindness from people they didn’t know.
“There were two young teenagers for San Diego that drove up and offered us food. I asked them who they were with and they said, ‘Nobody, we just felt like we needed to get over here and help.’ And I felt very moved by that,” Jim Wheeler said.
For the Wheelers and so many others, this one year anniversary is the start of a new chapter.
“We’re past it,” said Jeffrey Hentz, CEO of the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce. “The community can truly say we got through it. Look how far back we’ve come in a short window of time, it feels tremendously inspirational and it keeps us driving even harder.”
But with the end of hurricane season still months away, it’s a solemn milestone and a reminder that coastal towns will always have to be ready to weather the storm and come back stronger.