5 Years After Harvey Tore A Path Of Destruction And Displacement, Gulf Coast Towns Show Economic Resiliency
Five years ago this week, Hurricane Harvey tore roofs off buildings in Rockport, shuttered water supply plants in Beaumont and swelled the bayou waters in central Houston, causing $125B in total property damage and the displacement of residents who gave up on their waterlogged homes.
Yet business leaders on Texas’ Gulf Coast say the region is back, in some cases better than ever, even as they acknowledge the reality of more severe weather events on the horizon.
From cities that took direct hits to those farther inland that also sustained long-term fallout, economic development officials who spoke to Bisnow say there have been important lessons learned and economies built stronger and more resilient than before — even though rebuilding has been easier for businesses than for residents.
When Harvey made landfall on the Texas Gulf Coast in 2017, it smashed into Rockport first.
The beach town of about 10,000 people was swept into the national headlines for the massive damage left from winds. Most structures were damaged, including municipal buildings and many were total losses. The largely low-income population spent months, then years, waiting for Federal Emergency Management Agency funds in moldy houses. About 20% of the town's population left in the storm’s wake.
Flash-forward to 2022: Rockport is rebuilding its convention center, its courthouse and its city hall. And today, investors are flipping those damaged, moldy houses and turning them into Airbnbs for vacationers.
Diane Probst, the recently retired former president and CEO of the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce, reminisces cheerfully on how, in its own indirect way, rebuilding the city after Harvey made the town stronger during pandemic lockdowns.
"Going through what we've been through, and to have better [tourism] numbers than we've ever had, that's a huge statement for us," she said.
Today, an Airbnb listing in Rockport advertises local herons, pelicans and dolphins, inviting visitors to bring their poles and fish off the house deck or dock their boats. Another boasts a hot tub after a long day of exploring, with kayaks and paddleboards readily available.
The stays come at a summer daily rate of about $200 before fees, though Rockport rentals can soar as high as $500 a night. That’s up from a rough average of $125 a night before Harvey, according to Probst.
After Harvey, Rockport lost a quarter of its property tax base from damaged buildings, and every building in the city sustained some damage, according to media reports at the time.
Probst speaks proudly of the city's recovery, of nationwide attention on the city leading to a rush of contractors coming to rebuild homes. Since Harvey, the tourism-dependent city has held about 200 ribbon-cuttings for repaired businesses. Housing developers are planning on building about 2,500 new houses, and Probst expects another 5,000 new Rockport residents in the next five years, drawn by local energy jobs.
The pandemic also supplied an unexpected boost as tourists, trying to escape lockdown, flocked to parks and other outdoor recreation. Now commercial development is so frenetic the city, which previously had no economic development corporation, added one quickly after the storm amid new demand.
"They're getting away from the bigger cities, and with that, they're being exposed to our area and our life, our coastal life," Probst said. "It's the quality of life that they're looking at, and they're looking to buy. From an investment standpoint, the short-term rental market, investors are looking at it, buying four and five homes, refurbishing them and putting them on the rental market."
All the new activity has come at a cost to longtime residents, however. In Rockport, where residents earn a median annual income of about $24.6K, new development has spiked residential rents. Renters of single-family homes now pay around $2,100 to $2,500 a month, depending on how close they are to the beach versus roughly $1,500 a month pre-Harvey.
In the wake of Harvey, floodwaters shuttered pumping plants that provided water to Beaumont residents and a chemical plant suffered small explosions, but most commercial properties were unharmed by the storm, according to Kristie Young, vice president of economic development at the Greater Beaumont Chamber of Commerce.
Harvey's real impacts were felt by its residents, whose homes flooded — forcing them to leave the area.
Some Beaumont-area residents have never returned amid the threat of future weather events, Young said, especially in neighboring Port Arthur, which lies to the southeast, closer to the coast. Beaumont lost a net 3,000 residents between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
But that threat hasn't dimmed the appeal for oil and gas companies flocking to open refineries in the energy hub.
"Whenever companies contact us, every once in a while they will ask about [flooding]," Young said. "But for the most part, they've done their homework and they know the risk. That's why we have such a huge industrialized area. Right now, we have over $65B of industrial projects that are either underway or have been announced."
That figure balloons to $100B when accounting for neighboring cities. In the coming decade, ExxonMobil expects to spend $10B in the area. Fertilizer company OCI is planning a $5B expansion to start production of nitrogen-based fertilizer.
Not a lot of that largesse has ended up in the hands of Beaumont residents since the hurricane. As of 2020, Beaumont's average income for one individual is $27,174, a notch above the $24.6K federal poverty line, according to census figures — a number that hasn't changed much since, according to Young.
FEMA funds are finally coming in for residents affected by Harvey, and Young estimates funds might still be coming in eight to 10 years after the storm. Though many residents are back in their homes, some were beyond repair.
"People just walked away, especially after a couple of storms, people just put their hands up and say, 'I'm done,'" Young said.
In Houston, big plans are afoot for about $1.3B in federal flood recovery money — if the city can wrest them away from the Texas General Land Office, which left Houston and Harris County out in the cold when distributing flood mitigation funding after the hurricane. Those include new stormwater detention and drainage facilities, elevating private homes and building 3,500 flood-resilient and affordable multifamily units over the next two years.
The storm ushered in new and safer building codes, and in the Memorial area, where area streets were underwater for weeks after Harvey, with some locations reporting over 16 feet of water, a visible sign of recovery is underway.
Memorial Park is wrapping up a $70M, 100-acre Land Bridge and Prairie project that will help with stormwater management in an area of Houston that saw some of the storm’s worst flooding. As the largest park in Houston, the project is being built to withstand future Harveys, Memorial Park Conservatory Executive Vice President Randy Odinet said.
"Obviously, Harvey was very recent in our minds as we were looking at Land Bridge," Odinet said of the project that includes a new land bridge over Memorial Drive and a newly restored native Gulf Coast prairie, along with other wetlands and trails.
Though the city's vulnerable populations lag behind in terms of recovery rates from losses, a just-released University of Houston survey shows that 81.6% of Houston respondents affected by Harvey have completely or mostly recovered from the effects of the storm.
"Houston is a high-capacity city. It can do difficult things. It's a sophisticated city. There are a lot of fantastic societal partners … So there's just a lot of knowledge and expertise at the table," urban designer Matthijs Buow, who recently published a book on how cities can create climate crisis resiliency, told the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.
Meanwhile, in Rockport, Probst said plans are underway for a new visitor center to highlight the city's recovery since Harvey, with a display highlighting the heaps of debris that marked the worst of the storm's effects.
"You would not know, if you drove into our community, that we've been hit by a hurricane in August 2017. You would not know it," Probst said. "That's the reason why we're doing this exhibit, to make sure that we know what hit us."