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Port Aransas hurricane recovery speeds ahead

The Port Aransas High School tennis team takes practice to the beach after returning to school October 16. Classes are being conducted in portable buildings while the school district rebuilds after Hurricane Harvey destroyed the campus. As of the middle of the first week of back to school, enrollment was just over 80 percent of what it was when the school evacuated August 25. Photo courtesy Port Aransas ISD

The beach is in great shape and the fishing is excellent in Port Aransas, said Mayor Charles Bujan, who is encouraging tourists to return to one of the Coastal Bend’s most popular seaside towns. He warns, however, that along with sunscreen, bathing suits and towels, visitors should also pack a lot of patience — recovery from a Category 4 hurricane takes time.

“We want you to come back,” he said when asked if he had a message for tentative tourists, “but please recognize that we have to rebuild a lot of what we had, and it’s a long process.”

At the time of the interview, 10 restaurants and dozens of businesses had reopened, but the few hotels and beach rentals still habitable are mostly filled with homeless residents waiting for insurance appraisals and FEMA applications to go through.

While praising locals and volunteers who have been working around the clock on recovery efforts, he did have a few harsh words for FEMA, especially when it came to housing.

“FEMA is a tough nut to crack,” Bujan said. “We have over 100 people looking for a place to live. We are waiting for FEMA trailers or for FEMA to decide if people are eligible for help.”

Every elected official in the area has been working with FEMA to speed the process, but with three major hurricanes and horrendous wildfires in the span of two months, the emergency management agency might have met its match.

“We are using everything we can, from Washington, D.C., to Austin,” Bujan said. “It’s not happening as fast as I would like to see it work. It’s like pulling teeth.”



PORT ARANSAS MOUNTAIN

The city’s biggest problem, debris removal, paints a more positive if grungy picture.

“We’ve already removed 200,000 cubic yards of construction debris,” Bujan continued. “We are not even to the greenery yet. We still have half to go.”

He explained debris removal as a three-step process:

1. Clean out the house and put the debris on the street.

2. Remove furniture and household goods affected and put them on the curb.

3. Pull out the sheetrock and pile it up for removal.

The trucks will keep coming back until it’s all gone, Bujan said, a process he expects to continue until at least after the first of the year. Contractors hauling the goods from the curb are taking it to a temporary landfill site at the edge of town on Texas 361. The mound, which is being moved one truck load at a time to a landfill in Robstown, has been named Port Aransas Mountain.

Some of that debris comes from Bujan’s own home and his business, an RV park that was completely destroyed. His house took on 3 feet of storm surge. At the time of this interview, he had completed all three steps and was waiting for what was left of the interior to dry out.

“My house withstood the force of the hurricane winds,” he said, “but the storm surge got everybody.”

A third problem the city faces, especially when it comes to bringing tourists back to town, is the marina, which was totally destroyed.

“When tourism makes up your town economy, you can’t be without a harbor,” Bujan said.

The City Council started the process of solving the problem by approving a Certificate of Obligation bond last month. These bonds do not require a tax increase to fund.

Most of the road blocks to recovery are being dealt with swiftly, according to Bujan, who has nothing but praise for the community and the volunteers who have come to help.

“There is a silver lining, and it rests with our citizens,” he said. “We are really ahead of the ballgame here, even though there was so much devastation. We are much further ahead than I thought we would be.”

Best news yet, Bujan said: He believes the city will be ready for Spring Break, which is coming up in five months on March 10-18, 2018.

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