ROCKPORT, Texas — Joe Kirchens and his family stayed in their home during Hurricane Harvey.
“At 9:45, 10, we all went right here,” Kirchens said, motioning to a hallway off his dining room. “We put mattresses up, and we thought there was a tornado coming. The whole house was rattling, (the) walls were puffing, there’s cracks all in the walls from it moving, and we huddled here for 15 minutes. I said, ‘that’s not a tornado, that’s just gotta be the hurricane.’”
When the sun rose, Kirchens — who lives in Aransas County between Aransas Pass and Rockport — checked out the damage.
“During the hurricane the water was right about here,” Kirchens said, holding his hand about shin level, “it just touched the top of the deck.”
Kirchens lost 164 trees on his property. His yard was underwater and water reached into his house.
“This used to be my bedroom, but it was flooded,” he said, standing in his living room. “We had a foot of sea water in here, the ceiling was all coming down because the roof was damaged. We couldn’t live in here anymore. It was molded, so what we had to do was build a different bedroom on.”
Electricity was out for nearly a month, but Kirchens and his family stayed.
“We had to go to a couple friends, do some laundry, get supplies, go to Sinton, get gas, go to Corpus to get gas,” he said. “I ended up getting a bigger generator so we could do laundry here, ended up running that generator for three and a half weeks. It was costly, good thing gas prices weren’t as high as they are now."
In that time, Kirchens worked to repair his home, sinking a lot of his own money into it.
“(I spent) all my savings, I have no savings,” he said.
In the days and weeks following the storm, Kirchens was helped out as he tried to repair his home. He, and many others, received a lot of help from the Mennonite and Amish communities, who traveled to Texas from Pennsylvania to help.
“Rockport was rebuilt by people, churches, and good samaritans,” he said.
In the five years since the storm, Kirchens has put more than $100,000 dollars into fixing his property, and he’s not done.
“I’m still working on it, still got some finishing up to do, still got some things I can’t afford to do (…) actually quite a few things,” he said.
Kirchens said one person who was instrumental in aiding the volunteers, and making sure people were fed following Harvey: Steven Lewis Meinhausen - known locally as Stevie Lew.
Kirchens said Meinhausen’s house was damaged by the hurricane, but he opened his restaurant, Stevie Lew’s BBQ Kitchen, to cook for the volunteers working hard to rebuild the town.
Kirchens wasn’t alone in experiencing the devastation.
Aransas County Judge Burt Mills Jr. still remembers what it was like seeing the destruction for the first time.
“When I walked out of the building the first day, and saw all the devastation, it almost brought me to my knees,” he said. “It was quite devastating.”
Part of the devastation in Rockport, the Aransas County Courthouse and Rockport City Hall.
In May, construction started on the new buildings, which will be next to each other on N. Live Oak Street in Rockport, with construction estimated to be completed in late 2023.
“We got together, and we’re building a downtown ‘anchor project,’ is what we’re calling it,” Mills Jr. said. “The courthouse will be on the north side, city hall will be on the south side, with a plaza between them. It’s something that’s never happened in the state of Texas before, so it’s something new.”
If the current timeline holds, the courthouse and city hall buildings will be completed six years after Hurricane Harvey made landfall. While that will be a big step in recovery, there will still be more to do.
“I was told by other places that had storms hit them that it would take 10-12 years,” Mills Jr. said. “I told the team in my meetings that we’d do it in five years. That didn’t quite happen, but I think in the next two to three years, we’ll be pretty close to 100 percent back.”
Mills Jr. credits the people of Aransas County for being ahead of schedule in the recovery.
Five years after Harvey, Kirchens still worries every time a major storm is projected to impact the area.
“I get choked up. I get butterflies, and it’s like, what’s next?” he said. “They say, ‘oh Its not gonna do nothing,’ and you say to yourself, ‘I’m not gonna believe any of that,’ because that’s what Harvey did.”