ROCKPORT, Texas (Reuters) - For residents of Rockport who heeded warnings and evacuated the Texas beach town ahead of Hurricane Harvey, local officials had a simple message on Saturday - stay far away.
“Please do not come back, there’s nothing for you here,” said County Judge C.H. Burt Mills at an impromptu briefing hours after the Category 4 storm devastated the state’s Gulf coast, killing at least one person in Rockport, 30 miles north of Corpus Christi.
Rockport, home to about 9,000 residents, looked like a war zone on Saturday afternoon. Winds of up to 130 mph (209 kph) had sheared dozens of houses in half, peeled the roofs of hundreds more and blown out thousands of windows.
Splintered lumber littered the empty streets, some of which were flooded by up to two feet of seawater. Downed power lines sagged menacingly. Windowless shops in a strip mall near the seafront stood fully exposed to the torrential rain.
“Quite a few people decided to stay here, and that was a big mistake,” said Mills, who presides over a court in Aransas County, which includes Rockport.
One of them was Frank Cook, a 56-year-old contractor, who said “all hell broke loose” when the storm arrived.
“If you have something left of your house, you’re lucky,” he said while driving around town in his pickup truck to inspect the wreckage.
Eloy Lawrence, 49, who was walking on Market Street on Saturday afternoon with a cooler, was one of the lucky ones.
After weathering the storm overnight in a friend’s RV, Lawrence was checking on his mother’s house nearby, which he helped his father build 36 years ago.
“Oh Lord Jesus, please let it be OK,” he said as he came up the street. “It’s standing!” he said with relief when the house came into view.
Lawrence said his night in the RV was terrifying. The door was damaged in the wind when he had briefly opened it to let his girlfriend rush out to grab her phone from an SUV parked outside. He spent most of the night struggling to hold the door shut.
When morning came, Lawrence saw mobile homes all around the RV with severe damage. One was “broken in half,” he said. The SUV had been crushed by a tree.
When the eye of the hurricane passed over town, the wind started to pull the roof off a subsidized housing complex for the elderly, said Commander Larry Sinclair of the Rockport Police Department.
Officers mobilized an armored tactical vehicle to transport residents to the relative safety of the local jail. One woman sustained a minor injury in the process, he said.
In nearby Fulton, Mayor Jimmy Kendrick said every house was damaged and anyone who had left town should remain where they were. “If you’ve got a place to stay, stay there.”
Charles Newtown, a chartered fishing guide, and his wife Beverly, who sells fireworks to help pay the family expenses, were among those who decided to stay put in Rockport even as their daughter and two grandchildren evacuated.
The couple evacuated during previous storms and had trouble getting back so decided to stay this time.
Beverly had written her name on her arm, as the mayor had asked those who remained to do to help with identification of anyone who did not survive.
“The creaking of trees and the wind noise, and things flying against the house, was the worst part,” Beverly said.
Reporting by Brian Thevenot; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Andrew Hay