A Community on the Mend
● By Kirby Tello
It has been one year since Hurricane Harvey ravaged our beloved Coastal Bend. Despite the horrific devastation, a strong and resilient community led the way to awe-inspiring recovery efforts. While the need to rebuild is still present, we now reflect on how far we have come and how much farther we need to go.
As Harvey developed in the Gulf last August, residents stayed glued to the news, trying to determine how severe of a storm to expect. Uncertainty hovered over the region as meteorologists monitored the growing storm hour by hour.
Panic struck when city officials strongly recommended that residents evacuate. The storm was now predicted to be stronger than anticipated. People rushed home from work early, debating whether they had time to board up their homes before leaving town. Others decided home was the safest place to hunker down and ride out the storm. However, no one could have guessed the amount of destruction that Hurricane Harvey would wreak upon the Coastal Bend.
Frances Kaminski, a long-time resident of Aransas Pass, decided to evacuate to her son’s home in Oklahoma. “Storms like these don’t come around too often, but when they do, you should take them seriously,” she says. From a distance, Frances kept a keen eye on news stories and weather reports while getting updates about her home from neighbors. But suddenly, communication with her neighbors came to a screeching halt. After Harvey made landfall, much of the Coastal Bend lost electricity. Frances had no way of knowing what, if anything, still stood.
Frances eventually returned to Aransas Pass to find that fallen trees had demolished her carport and outdoor shed, but her home was intact and standing. Even though the house suffered roof and water damage, Frances felt lucky. For miles around, many other homes and businesses were completely destroyed.
Putting the pieces back together would be a daunting task for Port Aransas and other bay cities. Local non-profit organizations, businesses, and droves of volunteers quickly arrived to help clear debris and donate food, water, clothing, and other essentials for families in need.
For Frances, the recovery process proved to be an ongoing effort. She, along with many other residents, reached out to local, state, and federal organizations for assistance. Unfortunately, some of these organizations required an online application that was impossible to complete due to the lack of Internet connection.
Frances recalls making multiple attempts to apply to a disaster relief effort led by the American Red Cross. “I went 23 days without electricity,” Frances explains. “I tried for three days (to apply) before giving up.”
On the other hand, some organizations assembled teams locally in the early stages of post-Harvey. These groups are still leading long-term recovery efforts and are helping families put their lives back together. One such group is All Hands and Hearts – Smart Response. Although this organization has an international presence, they immediately set up at a local church to address the immediate and long-term needs of the hurricane stricken community. They invited Harvey victims to come and see if they qualified for the organization’s rehabilitation program.
Right around the time Frances was getting no response from federal and state agencies, she heard about this gathering from a neighbor. Under All Hands and Hearts – Smart Response’s requirements, Frances qualified for assistance. Shortly after that, volunteers arrived and began reconstructing her home.
“Much of the inside of the home had to be repaired due to water damage, but that is the kind of work I’ve done before,” Frances says. She and her husband used to do rehab work on homes they owned together, but now she is older and widowed. The job was too huge for her to complete alone.
Like Frances, many people faced obstacles in recovering from the devastating storm. Some were physically unable to do the work themselves, while others lacked sufficient funds or insurance. An estimated 86,000 households across six counties requested long-term disaster recovery assistance from FEMA, but only 10% qualified. Coastal Bend Disaster Recovery Group, an organization that identifies households with unmet needs, predicts that even with adequate resources, rebuilding the Coastal Bend will take up to ten years and cost several million dollars. As federal funds deplete rapidly, families have been advised to seek out local assistance.
Ryan Tascar, Project Manager for All Hands and Hearts – Smart Response, says that many families who were not granted assistance from FEMA have sought resources from his group. “We serve families with vulnerable circumstances who don’t have the funds to rebuild,” Tascar explains. While Tascar’s group focuses mainly on home reconstruction, his team has partnered with other local organizations, including the United Way of the Coastal Bend, to provide household necessities such as furniture. According to Tascar, All Hands and Hearts -Smart Response currently manages four home projects at a time, with each home taking one to three months to build. Their goal is to be able to take on five to six projects simultaneously in the near future.
As for Frances, the physical work on her home is complete. Like so many others, she still has an emotional burden to bear but holds on to her remarkably resilient spirit. “The neighborhood and the community are still strong,” says Frances. “Some of the winter Texans have packed up and left, but there are still people here who are standing strong and hoping for a rebuild.”
Coastal Bend residents agree that they have all learned so much about state and federal agencies, insurance, and disaster relief in the post-Harvey days; however, they hope they’ll never have to use that knowledge again. Frances has no regrets. She would do it all the same if another catastrophe like Harvey hit, although she doesn’t anticipate that it will. “I am not afraid,” Frances says. “As the old saying goes, lightning won’t strike twice.”