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Rockport, Texas, Hit Hard By Harvey


Harvey - downgraded from hurricane to tropical storm - continues to slog inland, pouring rain on eastern Texas. The storm has killed at least two people, including one in the little coastal tourist town of Rockport, which took a direct hit Friday night. NPR's John Burnett went there and sent us this report.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Rockport was known for its whooping crane tours, the massive live oaks that were here when Texas was a republic and sport fishing for redfish and speckled trout. Now Rockport will forever be known for Hurricane Harvey - the most powerful storm to strike Texas in more than half a century.

Though officials ordered a mandatory evacuation, they estimate nearly half the residents stayed. Among them was Ruben Nino, a house painter who says he does not own a vehicle. He cowered in his apartment with his family while the winds shredded the building around them.

RUBEN NINO: It was dangerous. There's sheet rock and glass breaking and all kinds of stuff. We survived in a little closet with four people until we called 911. And they came and rescued us. There was a lot of screaming and praying to Jesus and stuff like that.

BURNETT: His mother-in-law, Diane Smith, was the one praying.

DIANE SMITH: I'm just throwing my hands up, praying to God and asking God to just hold everything together and be with everybody. I'm hurting bad, sick. My medicine is at my house.

BURNETT: When the eye of the hurricane passed over at about 11 p.m., a police car raced out to pick the family up and brought them to the jail, which was being used as a makeshift shelter. They slept in cells until morning.

Aransas County Sheriff Bill Mills says his dispatchers heard from people like Ruben Nino's family during the storm, but with 130 mph winds roaring outside, they couldn't do anything about it.

BILL MILLS: Couldn't put officers out, not in the wind and with what was going on. And that was some tough calls for dispatchers to make.

BURNETT: The storm emergency was deeply frustrating for Sheriff Mills. He said violent winds shattered windows in most of his patrol cars and they became dangerous to drive. The cell phone towers went out. Then their radio communications went dead. For this weary law man, the first order of business on Saturday was...

MILLS: To try to get the radios back up. Try to get some kind of way to talk to each other in a constructive manner.

BURNETT: County officials are confirming only one death, a man who died in a house fire during the storm. They declined to name him because his family hadn't been contacted yet. There were about a dozen injuries, mostly minor.

Judy McCrae may go down as the luckiest citizen of Rockport. As a part-time pet groomer, she says she's been down on her luck and she didn't have the means to evacuate. So she rode out the monster hurricane in a mobile home.

JUDY MCCRAE: It was loud and windy. And my trailer shook like crazy. And the roof - I just knew it was going to come off, you know? I just sit there, you know?

BURNETT: What did it sound like?

MCCRAE: It didn't sound like, you know, a tornado. But it sounded like big trucks coming. You know, it was like woo (ph) coming at you, you know, and louder and louder and louder. And then it was on you. It was like that all night.

BURNETT: When McCrae and her dogs stepped out into a shattered world at dawn, they found that every trailer in the park had been disemboweled except hers.

MCCRAE: My trailer is the only one standing in between all of these trailers being destroyed. God knew was there. And he took care of us.

BURNETT: Today, law enforcement, who came from across the state, will continue going house to house in Rockport and neighboring Fulton to search for survivors and bodies. Heavy equipment will begin clearing down the power lines and toppled oaks from the streets. And they're hoping that one day this laid back city on the Gulf can be rebuilt and reborn. And the tourists will come back. John Burnett, NPR News, Rockport, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.