ROCKPORT, Texas – Rockport Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Rios was blunt as Hurricane Harvey headed for this coastal community: Get out now, or write your name and Social Security number on your forearm so we can identify your body afterwards.
His warning probably saved many lives in this town of 10,600.
But a month after the devastating storm, residents face monumental recovery challenges. Damage estimates say 15 percent of homes here were destroyed, with another 21 percent sustaining major damage and 33 percent minor damage. Power to the poles has been restored to about 98 percent of customers by Sept. 23, but many structures will have to be rewired before service is turned back on. Businesses are slowly recovering, with around 250 reopening, according to the Chamber of Commerce website.
Into this community clawing its way back to normal, the American Red Cross is sending daily deliveries of food and cleanup supplies.
On Monday, Red Cross volunteer Brenda Riley from Denver, Colo., was manning the food truck at the Multi-Agency Resource Center (MARC). “My heart is joyous,” she said, “because everyone is networking and partnered up here.”
The MARC, in the old H-E-B Grocery parking lot, is a one-stop site where the Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Small Business Administration, Aransas County Health Department, housing assistance and insurance adjusters meet with local residents.
One of the popular features at the MARC since Saturday is a bank of laptops with internet access so residents can apply for Red Cross financial help through the Immediate Assistance Program.
Meanwhile, one of the regular Red Cross food stops is at the Templo La Fe church, at the corner of Market Street and Kelly Lane in the southeastern part of the city. The church has been providing food and supplies for their congregation and local residents.
One hot Saturday, a Red Cross food truck driver spotted Pastor Ismael Alfaro and members of his mostly poor, Hispanic congregation pulling soggy carpet from the church. Driver Jim Denison of Brownsville found the pastor’s wife, Hermelinda Alfaro, cooking in the hot kitchen of the church’s damaged hall, trying hard to feed the workers and neighbors.
The very next day, the Red Cross began dropping off containers of 100 meals twice a day. Food truck drivers Dick Ditore of San Diego, Calif., and Diana Zaldivar of Brownsville, heard many comments, saying their deliveries were making a real difference in people’s lives here.
Fifty miles north, in Bloomington, some 3,200 people waited out the storm in the town’s hurricane dome as winds clocked at 140 mph roared outside. After the wind and rain subsided, most of those evacuees returned home.
Many of those homes are two-bedroom apartments housing extended families of six, eight, 10 people. With a 98 percent free and reduced lunch population in the Bloomington Independent School District of about 1,000 students, it’s a community of need, even in the best of times.
The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey is anything but the best of times.
A drive through the town reveals surprisingly limited damage to homes and businesses, although the school district sustained an estimated $16 million in damages to four campuses. However, many residents are struggling with the loss of income because their places of employment are still closed.
Yet, life is trying to return to normal. Electric power has been largely restored. The Dairy Queen on the main drag has reopened. FEMA has been in the community to assess damage to homes.
On Sunday, a Red Cross food truck made its way through particularly needy neighborhoods. Pulling up outside an apartment complex, driver John Ellsworth honked the horn and announced over the loud speaker, “Red Cross. Free lunch. Come out and get it.”
As president of the Bloomington school board, Ellsworth knows his town. He said 129 children board buses at this one stop. One such student, an eight-year-old with her dog Minnie, asked for seven meals for her family. She said she doesn’t like the weekend because she can’t be in school.
A light rain doesn't deter people from slipping out of their apartments, one from here, another from over there, to gratefully accept lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches, chips and cookies. Dinner will be a hot meal brought from Corpus Christi, some 90 minutes away.
At a 103-year-old home that weathered the storm well, eight members of an extended family were happy to get even a simple meal.
Hurricane Harvey clearly changed the landscape of communities across southeast Texas, but as residents come to grips with their new reality, the familiar Red Cross symbol and its generous volunteers will be part of the scene.
The word that now goes out from Rockport – where it once was "get out or else" – is now a resounding, “One Message. One Voice. We Are Strong. We Will Rebuild.”