ROCKPORT, Texas – Robert Zbranek ignored warnings to evacuate this coastal town of about 10,000, determined to ride out then-Hurricane Harvey on his 38-foot cruiser, one of three boats he had moored at a local marina.
But after taking a battering as 130 mph winds roared ashore– and watching a sailboat he’d been living on sink in the storm – Zbranek abandoned the cruiser and jumped into his car, parked on the dock, during a brief calm as the storm’s eye passed over.
“Everything I owned,” was in the half-submerged sailboat, Zbranek said Saturday afternoon, motioning toward it with a beer. He said he didn’t realize Harvey, which came ashore near Rockport, Texas, as a powerful Category 4 storm, would be so powerful, despite a mandatory evacuation notice and warnings that the storm could be life-threatening.
“I’ve never seen anything like it and I’ll never see anything like it for the rest of my life,” Zbranek said. “It was a real eye-opener.”
Rockport, the Aransas County seat where Harvey came ashore, was a mangled ghost town on Saturday.
The streets were a mess of precariously leaning and toppled power poles and dangling and fallen power lines. Roofs were ripped off homes, some of which were impaled by trees. A trailer lay on its side, blocking much of one major intersection. Wood ripped from houses was strewn along Route 35 on the town’s exposed southern end.
Harvey’s relentless winds also tore the metal sides off the city’s high school gym and twisted the steel door frame of its auditorium. The windows of some police vehicles had been blown out.
And pieces of 100-year-old oak trees torn from their roots impeded emergency vehicles, as crews arrived from neighboring communities to begin searching for victims and cleaning up.
In Arkansas County, where Rockport is located, one person died after being trapped inside a home that caught fire, Aransas County Judge C.H. “Burt” Mills, Jr. said. He said another 12 to 14 people were injured.
The medical examiner’s office in Houston also confirmed a woman died in Harris County on Saturday.
Officials said they were bracing for days of heavy rain and flooding even as they planned how to respond to the damage. And they still were unsure if there were more casualties in the town, which was left without electricity or cellphone and internet service.
In many low-lying areas of Rockport and towns to the south, battered homes lay half submerged in water. AP reporters saw more than 100 mobile homes on their sides or upended.
“We’re putting together teams to go out and begin that first and very critical damage assessment and search and rescue operations,” Aransas County spokesman Larry Sinclair said, adding that one crew was checking out a senior citizen’s home reported to have been damaged after residents had been moved before the storm.
The county jail in Rockport, whose inmates had been evacuated, became a makeshift clinic after the emergency medical post’s doors and roof were damaged.
Authorities were so concerned about casualties that acting Mayor Patrick Rios had said anyone foolish enough to stay should write their name and Social Security number on their arm with a Sharpie pen, to make it easier to identify their bodies.
Matthew Otero, who decided stay at the town’s recently built Holiday Inn after evacuating his wife and children, opened his business – Donuts Dat Rock – on Saturday with the help of a generator, serving coffee and kolaches, a pastry popular in Texas.
“It was surreal,” Otero said of the storm that shook the hotel, left his house intact and destroyed a $60,000 commercial building that he’d bought recently but didn’t insure. “That wind storm is a crook.”
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