Disaster Preparedness • Economic Recovery • Resilience

With help from IEDC, two small Texas Cities on the Gulf Coast Rally in 2018 to Recover from Hurricane Harvey

On August 25, 2017, after Hurricane Harvey struck the Gulf Coast, the small Texas cities of Rockport and Fulton faced a true crisis.

With $125 billion in damage from Harvey, most of the attention of the media and federal government was focused on damage to the Houston Metropolitan area, to the large Gulf oil refineries, and to larger coastal cities like Bay City and Beaumont-Port Arthur. But for smaller towns like Rockport and Fulton, 200 miles southwest of Houston, the damage was perhaps worse, particularly after the Category 4 storm had made landfall just across the Aransas Bay.

There was massive destruction in these two cities and in surrounding Aransas County. In the larger town, Rockport, which has a population of about 9,000, whole city blocks were destroyed. Rockport’s courthouse was devastated when a cargo trailer slammed into it, only stopping when it was halfway through the building. In the city’s high school gymnasium, walls were torn down. Just to the north in the adjacent city of Fulton, population 1,400, many fishing and shrimping boats, the mainstay of the smaller city’s economy, were destroyed. To the south, on San Jose Island, nearly every building was damaged.

The Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce, a venerable 66-year old organization, suddenly found itself essentially responsible for both small towns. Local government, which suffered damage to its buildings, was virtually immobilized. For Diane Probst, the Chamber’s President and CEO, and a veteran of the organization since 1990, the situation initially seemed overwhelming.

The physical damage to Rockport and Fulton was compounded by another problem. Social media sites were ablaze with posts about how the cities had been ineffective in dealing with the hurricane damage, and powerless to restore tourism, the mainstay of the area’s economy. “Social media was killing us, saying we weren’t doing anything,” Probst said. “It was terrible, and it was destroying morale.”

Fortunately for the small six-person organization, things were not completely desperate. The Chamber’s building on Broadway Street was not seriously damaged— unlike the city government, it was able to provide office space. And though nearly all of its employees’ homes were damaged, none were forced to leave the area. “We were basically functioning like a government, opening emails addressed to the city, providing food and arranging shelter,” she said.

In addition to these contributions, the Chamber quickly got some high-level help. With the aid of IEDC’s Senior Associate Louise Anderson, and eventually IEDC volunteer Allison Larsen, Probst said that the Chamber was able to set up a recovery team, which included two former city managers.

“We started out with getting calls from Louise, and agreed that we needed help and needed a plan,” says Probst. Anderson got the Chamber connected with Allison Larsen, an economic development specialist. Larsen, an IEDC board member, is a very experienced economic development professional who has two decades of know-how in the field, and heads a prestigious economic development firm, TadZo, in Buckeye, AZ.

Probst said Larsen insisted that the towns needed to take action right away, even before beginning to develop a long-term plan. What should be accomplished immediately, Larsen advised, was listening carefully to city residents, businesses, and government, getting input from the widest group of stakeholders possible. This developed into, first, what Probst calls an “input session,” in December. A month later, in January, came an “output” session devoted to formulating the action plan. Larsen was closely involved with both phases.

Also, with the Chamber’s help, Rockport was able to boost morale in the city by holding, on schedule, several long-planned events shortly after the hurricane, including its yearly Rockport Film Festival and the Seafair Festival.

The key to the success for both the input and output sessions, says Probst, was finding participants who she calls “doers, people who would carry out a mission, people who were knowledgeable and already involved.” She contrasted these “doers” with those who only comment and, worse, complain. She said the group met in two-hour sessions.

As the action plan evolved, the Chamber came to a sobering realization about the cities’ long-term prospects. “Tourism was not going to yield us the wealth we needed to thrive; what we needed was better economic infrastructure.” At the governmental level, she said, this problem was compounded by the fact that “we are taxed out, with no general fund money available. Simply put, we needed to diversify.”

With Larsen’s help, Rockport/Fulton came up with a “Comprehensive Economic Development Strategic Action Plan” that provided a systematic roadmap for doing just this. The plan begins with a focus on assessing resources and conducting a comprehensive planning process. It then presents a series of priorities, urging the cities to “rebuild and expand,” “explore diversifying the economy with new target markets,” “analyze business recruitment readiness,” “enhance marketing and promotion programs to revitalize tourism,” “evaluate, develop and invest in expanding visitor experience,” “retain, support and grow existing businesses,” and finally “pursue community quality of life.”

In vertical columns, the spreadsheet details the stakeholders responsible for each part of the plan, proposed funding sources for the plan, and a timeline for implementation. For example, rebuilding a Fulton Special Events Center, one of the most ambitious proposals included in the Plan, would require multiple sponsors, grants from the Economic Development Administration and Community Development Block Grants, and would have a timeline extending to at least 2020.

The “key is bringing all the venues together under a sort of master plan,” said Probst. The Chamber director hopes for some clear wins in the near future. EDA is being approached for a $5 million grant for the Rockport Center for the Cultural Arts and a $2 million grant for a Harbor Front project. The key to all this prospective funding, she says, is bringing together all of the cities’ ambitious initiatives into one comprehensive plan. These plans include renovating the Heritage District, the Cultural Arts District, and the Harbor front.

Over a year post-Hurricane Harvey, Rockport/Fulton still has serious work to do. For starters, five hotels, five apartment complexes and five condominium centers have yet to come back on line. Tourism in general remains a serious problem. “It [tourism] right now is about at 50% of what it was, though it’s getting better incrementally,’ she said. One of the problems, she noted, is that the hurricane came at a time of wrenching change within the hotel business itself, with many more bookings done through online venues like Airbnb, which do not employ a traditional hospitality model. “I would say we are now, a year after, about 85% back. It’s not like we’re in a wheelchair anymore; we are now on crutches.”

Then there was the problem with the response to the report when it was completed. A month after finalization in January, it was submitted to the five local governmental entities involved in the process. “Things were fine,” said Probst, “until it was reviewed by the City of Rockport,” which insisted on priority areas different from the report. Final approval did not come until April.

Addressing the Chamber’s goals in 2018, Probst said that the most immediate priority is to grow membership and encourage new businesses to come to the cities. Next on the priority list, she said, both the Chamber and local governments in the Rockport-Fulton area must improve messaging, particularly through social media. “It [our messaging] must be crisp and clear. We need to define our role and get that out to the public.”

Another priority of the Chamber is establishing an economic development corporation. But most important is coaxing more industry to come to Rockport/Fulton, cities traditionally dependent on tourism and fishing. Unfortunately, she said, traditional manufacturing is not an option, given environmental concerns, governmental regulation, and the reluctance of manufacturers to locate capital-intensive businesses in areas vulnerable to catastrophic storms.

One possibility, she said, is to develop a system of small to medium-sized supply chain facilities between Rockport/Fulton and Portland, a small port city to the Southwest. She hopes that such initiatives, which remains unfunded, might be financed through an EDA grant. “We have recovered from the immediate crisis,” she said, “what I worry about now is 2019, and the longer term beyond that.”

One promising sign that recovery is moving apace is what Probst terms as “surges” in the recovery process, with business seeing sharply increased demand from tourists and other customers. “These surges occurred right before March, and then in the summer months,” she said. Probst suspects that the spikes in activity may be the result of improved messaging and the shared enthusiasm among businesses about the task of recovery, which are then communicated to customers.

Not least of the long-term consequences of Hurricane Harvey, said Probst, has been how it has changed the Chamber itself. Virtually every one of her staff suffered serious property loss. But despite the overall devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, the Chamber’s building itself was not heavily damaged and it opened for business, fortunately, on August 27, the Monday after the Hurricane made landfall on Saturday.

“We became the mainstay of the two cities,” she said. The Chamber had one of the only conference rooms available in the area, and the Chamber itself became, as she put it, “a repository for contributions.” Those contributions, a substantial portion of which came via a GoFundMe.com website, eventually totaled $1.4 million. Disbursing that amount became another challenge, which was accomplished over a 60-day period. “We really saw what our organization and the cities could accomplish, and we bring that spirit into the future.”