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CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – When you live along the Gulf of Mexico, a hurricane is not a matter of if, but when, and on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017, “when” in the form of Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas coast, near Rockport.
At first, the storm was nothing more than a tropical wave off Africa, and it stayed disorganized for quite a few days. However, thanks to the Gulf’s warm waters, Harvey grew quickly, and upon landfall, the Category 4 storm caused catastrophic damage and devastating floods.
NOAA estimates Harvey caused a total of $125 billion in total damages – second only to Hurricane Katrina. More than 80 lives were lost, and more than 200,000 homes were affected.
Tales of survival and perseverance after Harvey poured out from all over Texas, though the stories, even a year later, often provoke tears and solemn memories. And while there are many stories of loss, below are the accounts of three Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi Islanders who were impacted by Hurricane Harvey and their determination to succeed, even under dire circumstances.
In late summer 2017, Alex Bardin, a media production major at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and life-long Rockport resident, was looking forward to coming back to the Island University for his junior year. That August, he spent time helping his mom, a middle school teacher in Rockport, set up her classroom and all was good with the world. That is, until news of Hurricane Harvey broke.
As the storm grew, Bardin, his mom, and his brothers evacuated, while his father, a self-employed carpenter, had plans to follow suit after boarding up a few more homes in the community. However, with just a flip-phone in hand, Bardin’s father made a last-minute decision to ride out the storm.
“When the mayor of Rockport told everyone who stayed to write their social security number on their arms so their bodies could be later identified, I called my father in tears and begged him to at least go to an evacuation shelter,” Bardin said. “Thankfully, he did.”
Bardin and his family spent the whole night Harvey made landfall in agony and prayer as they watched images of their hometown being torn apart. At 3:30 a.m. on Saturday, they received a police report saying the evacuation shelter his father stayed in was still intact.
When Bardin’s family returned to Rockport, they found their home still standing, but with major damage. Bardin’s father lost his entire workshop, but even still, he says they were lucky.
“I had neighbors across the street whose homes were leveled to a slab,” said Bardin.
Returning to school in the fall was difficult for Bardin as he was going to classes four days a week while helping his father rebuild their house. But he also found comfort in returning to campus because of the support of his professor and friends.
“The faculty and staff at A&M-Corpus Christi were so generous and understanding of my situation, and for that, I am very grateful,” shared Bardin.
Bardin was also able to use this traumatic experience to grow as a student and artist. For his Advanced Documentary class, Bardin created a documentary of his father’s hurricane survival story.
“It’s a story, I think, that everyone affected by this storm can relate to,” Bardin said. “And though making this film was very hard for me, it helped me cope with the stress and the grieving process post-Harvey.”
While he was not expecting it, Bardin was able to make Dean’s List in the fall after Harvey, just as he has every semester at the Island University.
“To make Dean’s List, to be able to overcome such a horrific event, to push through, and to stay on top of my grades and to finish with straight A’s was a huge accomplishment,” Bardin shares.
Bardin, who is expecting to graduate in spring 2019, said he learned to appreciate life more because of this experience.
“It made me value what I have, because we never know when it can be ripped away from you in literally six hours,” said Bardin. “In one night, our whole life can change.”
Bardin’s family was finally able to complete the reconstruction of their home on Aug. 14, 2018, which was also the first night he was able to sleep in his own bed in almost a year.
Dr. Leslie Mills
Originally from the Texas Hill Country, Dr. Leslie Mills, Interim Director of Career Services at A&M-Corpus Christi, had never experienced a hurricane before. Mills, who settled in Port Aransas in 2014 and commutes daily to the Island campus, remembers being nervous when she first heard that a tropical storm had entered the Gulf. It was still early in the week, days before the storm hit.
“I was worried, but it seemed like nobody else in Port Aransas was,” she joked. “They all nonchalantly went about their business.”
Mills and her family – her husband and 10-year-old son – lived in a home on stilts in Port Aransas, and their rental home was next door. That rental home – not on stilts – was constructed nine feet above sea level. Also, on the same street, was the Mills’ older family cottage.
At the time, Mills’ husband worked out of state, and on Tuesday, Aug. 22, when the storm started gathering strength, he took a red-eye back to the Coastal Bend to prep their homes for a worst-case scenario. Wednesday morning, the family moved many of their belongings into their rental home, because it had a covered garage, and they boarded up their windows. Once a mandatory evacuation for Port Aransas was issued, the Mills family headed north to Fredericksburg.
From the safety of the Hill Country, the family watched the weather reports with mixed emotions. Harvey’s eye took a slight turn north, toward Rockport, though it wasn’t enough to completely spare Port Aransas. The coastal town suffered a reported $50 to $70 million in damages.
A couple of days later, when the family made the trek back to Port Aransas, they discovered a giant hole through the roof of their primary home. Also, flood waters three feet high filled their vacation rental, and the family’s cottage suffered so much damage, it would end up having to be leveled.
For about a month after the storm, the family lived in small condo on North Padre Island. Mills’ son went back to school and Mills herself went back to work.
“Those first initial weeks, my campus colleagues were so understanding,” she said. “I was told to take as much time as I needed to put our life back together. Working provided me with a sense of normalcy, and while it was difficult to juggle it all, it was exactly what I needed.”
Property loss for the Mills was more than $50 thousand. A year later, as Mills looks back on Harvey, she acknowledges how the storm changed her life. First, her husband, who spent many years commuting out of state for work, took a job closer to home. Secondly, Mills took a hard look at the way she prioritizes material items.
“The reality is, we live on an island, and all of our possessions can be wiped out any minute,” she said. “Material things are just things. It’s not what’s most important.”
Also, the family decided to downsize by selling one of their homes.
“After the chaos we just went through, it felt like we needed to slow down,” she said. “In the end things could have been much worse for us and they were for many of our friends and community. We are just grateful for where we are today.”
In summer 2017, Angelica Martinez, a criminal justice major at A&M-Corpus Christi, had just started working and living at a beautiful RV park in Port Aransas. Martinez thought it was the perfect scenario – free rent while she worked at the park, along with a safe home and steady job. Then, Hurricane Harvey changed all that.
As the first shots of drone footage came into the news stations, showing utter destruction where the RV park once proudly stood, Martinez couldn’t help but feel devastated.
“My heart broke,” she said. “I lost my job and my home all at once, and I felt horrible that the little town that I had come to know and love throughout the summer was practically wiped out.”
After the storm, Martinez found both a new job and a new home and started her senior year at the Island University. Martinez credits not only her family and friends, but Islander faculty and staff for helping her through her final year of school.
“It might just be the size of our campus, but it truly feels like family,” said Martinez. “I was informed that campus employees attended trainings to deal with students affected by the hurricane. The people and resources given to us made all the difference.”
During her time as an Islander, Martinez made the Dean’s List twice and actively volunteered in the community. She was also a member of the Student Conduct Board and Sigma Alpha Pi, the National Society of Leadership and Success. For her hard work and determination, she was nominated by Student Engagement and Success to receive a complimentary Islander Class Ring from the National Islander Alumni Association at the spring 2018 ceremony.
“Receiving a ring still strikes a chord with me,” said Martinez. “Yes, I was attempting everything with the best of my efforts, but whoever stops to think that other people may be watching your actions? It’s only more reason to love the staff of A&M-Corpus Christi. They really do care for their students and want the best for them.”
Martinez graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice in summer 2018 and moved to San Antonio with plans of interning with the District Attorney’s Office and landing a job with Child Protective Services. She encourages other Islanders going through difficult times to remember that this too will pass, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
“For every storm – or hurricane – that comes your way, a rainbow follows,” she said. “Appreciate those who are there to help you and never give up on yourself and your goals.”