Bayside, Texas – Since the storm, Carlos Hernandez and his wife, Severita, have spent most days under a portable canopy in front of their ruined house, looking out at cotton fields stripped clean by Hurricane Harvey’s winds.
All around them, in growing piles, are the remains of their lives: photo albums, bags of clothes, the ceramic bowl their daughter bought them, their artificial Christmas tree.
With black mold blooming across their bedroom walls, the couple — married for nearly six decades — sleep at their daughter’s place in nearby Portland.
“We say we come over here to work, but we can’t do much,” said Hernandez, 75, who gets by on a cane and is awaiting knee surgery. “My wife’s old. I’m old. But this morning we moved a little bit of stuff.”
Officials in this tiny coastal city, population 333 and falling, say 80 percent of the structures in Bayside were destroyed or damaged. A month after the hurricane, it’s hard to find the other 20 percent. House after house lies in ruins. Some were blown completely apart by Harvey’s 130 mph winds. At many others, Harvey peeled back roofs and poured down rain that is rotting homes from the inside out. Residents like the Hernandezes anxiously await a decision from FEMA on emergency aid.
Bayside sits on Copano Bay, directly west of Rockport, the picturesque fishing village that briefly captured the nation’s attention when Hurricane Harvey’s eyewall made landfall there. But Bayside, where Harvey also churned mercilessly for hours, generated little more than a blip on the radar of public consciousness.
“We’re used to being the little town that’s kind of overlooked,” said Karen Clark, Bayside’s assistant city secretary. “I don’t see it being treated any differently than it has always been. We can’t make a name for ourselves. We’re just Bayside, but we’re nice people. That’s our main asset.”
It’s a refrain you hear repeated up and down this hardscrabble patch of the Texas coast, home to a diverse community of shrimpers, crabbers, chemical plant workers and affluent retirees.
Wedged between the beaches of Port Aransas and the vacation rentals of Port O’Connor, the area is filled with small towns that suffered massive storm damage. For some, the hurricane will forever alter the course of their future: Already in Bayside, at least eight families, close to 10 percent of the population, have decided to abandon the city. Small towns have seen their economies grind to a halt, and city budgets, already on the edge of solvency, are in peril.
The storm is also changing what these small towns will look like in the future. In Bayside, Harvey has reopened a bitter debate over the city’s pre-storm decision to prohibit single-wide manufactured homes in the city.
“Now, especially as we rebuild, some residents may need that,” Clark said. “We’re going to have to figure out all that. Not everyone is going to be happy.”
City leaders in the region worry that they lack the personnel and expertise to handle what promises to be years of seeking grants and recovery funds from the federal government. Roads, harbors, piers and water treatment plants will all need to be rebuilt or repaired. After the state’s most recent hurricanes — Ike and Dolly — cities were forced to navigate a thicket of regional, state and federal bureaucracies.
County officials have pledged to help such small communities. And the state’s Harvey recovery czar, Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp, grew up in a small coastal town — Placedo — and has vowed to make sure small cities get their due. But experts in disaster recovery say it’s common for small towns, and especially unincorporated areas, to struggle to compete for recovery funds.
“We have a city secretary, assistant city secretary and two maintenance workers, and that’s it,” Clark said. “We don’t have all these engineers, administrators; we don’t have any of that, and we need help on that desperately.”
What many here remember most about the hurricane was the awful roar of the wind as it tore through the town hour after hour. “I told my husband, Dennis, I just wish that sound would go away,” Clark said. “I remember when it was over, we came out and opened the doors. It looked like a war zone.”
But for days, Bayside didn’t see the volunteers and donations that were flooding into the larger, better known cities around them. Finally, a frustrated resident called a local radio station and said the town needed help.
“Needless to say, this is what happened,” Clark said, pointing to piles of donated toiletries, bottled water, diapers and MREs that fill Bayside’s City Hall. The help has continued to flow, though Clark says she’s worried that it, too, will dry up.
On a recent weekday, a volunteer group from nearby Woodsboro hauled in three huge smokers to cook brisket for residents in the parking lot of Bayside’s shuttered post office. Mike Gibbs, who runs Rawhide Cattle Co., said a friend told him no one was helping the folks in Bayside.
“It’s kind of a forgotten little town,” he said. “There’s no stores or restaurants open here. Hopefully this gets people re-energized. Its adrenaline those first few days, and then people realize it’s a long haul.”
James Winkle and his brother-in-law Bill Ingram, sweating through their shirts, were among those who took a break from cleaning up for a brisket lunch. Both men rode out the storm in their Bayside homes and talk about the lasting emotional toll of a hurricane’s direct hit.
Ingram said he often thinks of Indianola, a nearby town that was all but wiped off the map by hurricanes a century ago.
“I can believe it after one of these comes through,” he said. “But I think people here will rebuild. The town will come back. I don’t plan to leave.”
The storm was frightening enough, but both men said the days immediately following might have been even more difficult. “You can’t live without electricity — trust me,” Ingram said. “You take all that for granted: cold water, hot food, air conditioning, until it’s gone. Golly.”
The day after the hurricane, Ingram could not believe how quiet it was.
“There was not one car on the road. The sun goes down. What do you do? You go to bed. What do you eat? A lot of peanut butter sandwiches.”
Winkle said that a few days after the storm he was driving outside of town when he saw a power line dangling on the road and jammed on his brakes. Throughout the area after the storm, downed power lines littered roads, making travel difficult. But this time it was a phantom.
“I hadn’t slept much,” he said. “I was losing it.”