The first time we left Port Aransas, my wife got choked up in the car as we waited for the ferry. “It’s just not enough time,” she said. We’d been there for two days, a quick weekend trip for her birthday. We stayed at 5 Dancing Dunes, a small complex about a third of a mile from the beach. We were the only people staying there that weekend that weren’t part of a church trip; at night, on the deck, the church folks got together to sing hymns. (They also sang “Amazing Grace” to the melody of “Peaceful Easy Feeling” by the Eagles, leaving the words to the original chorus intact.) On our second night there, two of them knocked on our door. They knew that they had kind of taken over our vacation, so they brought us dinner—fresh fish from the grill and green beans. It was far from the only friendly, thoughtful gesture I’d receive on Port Aransas.
The next time we went to Port A, we stayed at Laughing Horse Lodge, right on Avenue G, one of the stretches of the town with commercial businesses on it. We liked the idea of being able to walk to dinner. This time, we went for a week. The next year, we went back a third time, staying at a condo owned by some winter Texans who rent it out the rest of the year. They offer extremely reasonable rates if you go just after Labor Day, and the place is just a few steps from the beach. Every time we’ve gone back since, that’s been our place. They let us bring our dog, and there’s a big TV in the living room if your idea of a pleasant vacation, like ours, involves binge-watching at night.
I don’t know what Dancing Dunes, Laughing Horse, or that condo look like right now. But looking at the footage from Port Aransas, it’s hard not to try to zoom in, to see if you can spot the places you know best.
I’m not alone in this. On Twitter, if you search “Port Aransas,” you’ll see a lot of people worrying and looking for information about their favorite vacation spot—or, more critically, their home. Here’s some drone footage, from storm chasers Val and Amy Castor, where you can take a look at the island’s Alister Street and see an overview of the damage.
Port Aransas is a small place. The entire town fits in 12 square miles, and the commercial district is much smaller than that. If you look at footage like this, or some of the photos that emerged elsewhere, you’re almost certain to see places you recognize if you’re familiar with the island. Maybe it’s the Stripes with the boat stranded at the gas pump, or one of the island’s ubiquitous t-shirt shops. Maybe you’ve stayed at the Red Roof Inn, or Amelia’s Landing, or one of the other hotels we’ve seen pictures of after the storm.
— Amelia'sLandingHotel (@AmeliasLanding) August 28, 2017
— SAWS (@MySAWS) August 28, 2017
More pictures of #Harvey's aftermath in Port Aransas.
— Stephen Nehrenz (@StephenNehrenz) August 26, 2017
— Port A Harvey Pics (@PortAHarveyPics) August 27, 2017
It’s hard to know for sure what the future of Port Aransas is when looking at these photos. I spot a structure that seems largely intact and get hopeful; I look at footage from the north end of the island, or of one of the RV parks that’s been destroyed, and the depth of what happened to Port Aransas hits me again.
Most of it will be rebuilt. There’ll be a lot that needs to happen first—the town needs water, and electricity, and sewage service. Full-time residents and business owners will have to decide if they want to do it again, knowing how quickly it was lost the first time. They’ll have to sift through the wreckage of their lives and feel how heavy their hearts are as they pick through what still stands, what doesn’t, and what’s been lost. But then some of them—many of them, perhaps—will rebuild.
But we don’t know when that will happen. Recovery could take years. The mayor described the damage as “a 100 percent loss,” and says that every structure on the island has been affected. Other residents, especially those relying on tourism for income, are more chipper— Beachcomber Vacation Rentals, which manages the condo that we stay in when we go to Port A, posted an update to their website that reads:
We are still scanning all the pictures and videos just like many of you are in the hope of catching a glimpse of something to lift our spirits. Your sleepy little fishing town of Port Aransas seems to have stood up pretty well to the horrific winds unleashed upon it by Hurricane Harvey and we are confident it will be back on its feet again stronger than ever.
Last spring, we reserved the condo for our 2017 trip to Port Aransas. We scheduled for the week to start September 8. It is, of course, almost impossible that the island will be ready for vacation rentals in nine days. But there’s a part of me that still holds out hope that our favorite places have escaped unscathed, however unlikely. We don’t need much, after all—that’s part of the simplicity of our experiences in Port Aransas. If we have a place to stay with electricity and running water, a place to buy groceries nearby, and a clean beach, it wouldn’t be too different from any other trip to Port A. If the Beach Lodge—one of the few on-the-beach restaurants in town, with burgers and onion rings and a jukebox that plays “Chicken Fried” by the Zac Brown Band at least once an hour—was somehow open (I haven’t seen any photos from that part of the island, so maybe, I tell myself, as I cling to hope), it’d be possible to spend a vacation in Port Aransas pretending like none of this had even happened.
But it did. For the full-time residents of Port Aransas, this is a personal tragedy. But because the town is a vacation destination, it feels personal for many more Texans. Port A occupies a different role in people’s lives than many of the other areas that were hit: People from all over Texas have strong, tender feelings toward the town, and have long used the place as a getaway from their day-to-day reality. It’s a place whose economy was built on giving people an escape, where Texans from across the state have been able to form cherished memories. For many of us, Port Aransas hasn’t been home, but a place free from everyday concerns—which makes the hurricane’s devastation a reminder that in the end, there’s nowhere that exists free from worry.
Lamenting the loss of Port Aransas as a vacation spot is an inherently privileged position. People live there, after all, and have lives that take place on the island year-round. But the fact that so many Texans who only spent a week at a time in Port Aransas feel a deep love for the place speaks to the kind of welcoming place the locals made of their home. People built their livelihoods around providing others with a place to relax—the kind of place where people might bring strangers dinner, as a way to apologize if their singing was getting in the way of the peaceful, easy feeling their fellow vacationers sought. There’s no reason to doubt that that spirit will return after Port Aransas is rebuilt—but it’ll take some time before that happens. Even in a place that feels like a respite from the rest of the world, that’s part of reality, too.