AUSTWELL – Jacquelyn Howard peered through a scope atop an observation deck.

She had never seen a whooping crane, and a pair of them towered over other birds foraging on the flats in the distance.

“This is a place worth saving,” she said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced it would spend $26.9 million making whole a national wildlife refuge carved up by Hurricane Harvey, the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Specifically, more than 8 miles of levees, 3 miles of canals and 33 water control structures will be replaced and 7 miles of shoreline will be hardened, said Beth Ullenberg, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Refuge manager Joe Saenz said parts of an area of the refuge known as the Blackjack Unit eroded between 20 and 40 feet during Harvey.

He said nonprofits, such as the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program and Coastal Conservation Association, will help with the repairs.

One of the ways the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program will help is by overseeing the design and construction of a breakwater in San Antonio Bay that will reduce wave action and provide habitat for fish and other wildlife, Kathryn Tunnell, the nonprofit’s spokeswoman, wrote via email.

“We have a long, ongoing relationship with the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, bringing resources together and working to achieve common goals, and we are thrilled to be partnering with them to address storm damage,” wrote Ray Allen, the executive director of the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program.

Tunnell wrote the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program will also repair and replace levees and water control structures damaged by Harvey on Matagorda Island. She wrote its goal is to restore the natural flow of a sprawling marsh on the island that supports a significant number of fish, crabs, wintering waterfowl and shorebirds.

“The repaired levees and water control structures will also be protected with bulkheads, riprap and other hardened infrastructure in order to prevent damage from future storms,” she wrote.

When giving a tour of the refuge this past week, Saenz talked more about how he thought the Howards’ future visits would improve.

According to the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce, more than 60,000 people visit the refuge by boat or by vehicle each year.

Saenz said those visitors will get a closer encounter with wildlife walking from Big Tree Trail to the observation deck once parts of a boardwalk downed by Harvey are rebuilt.

Saenz said had it not been for Harvey, reconstructing the boardwalk and the visitor’s center would have been weighed against other priorities across the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Region, which covers Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

He said the visitor’s center was built in the late 1970s and hasn’t been occupied since it was inundated with rain in August 2017.

“I don’t think anybody really wants to have to go through a hurricane, but I guess we’re going to see some new facilities out of it,” he said.

Among other “facilities,” he said there will be new bathrooms because the old ones were destroyed.

He said staff members are especially excited to be one step closer to having modern comforts, such as telephones and internet service, back. They, too, have been out since Harvey.

“So much of what we do now is dependent on computers,” he said.

But with so many moving parts, Saenz doesn’t want staff to get too excited.

“Some of this is just being patient,” he said. “We’ll get there.”

The $26.9 million is part of $51 million the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has allocated to rebuilding national wildlife refuges affected by Harvey. Others receiving funding are Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge and Texas Point National Wildlife Refuge south of Houston.

Jessica Priest reports on the environment and Calhoun County for the Victoria Advocate. She may be reached at or 361-580-6521.

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Former Environment/Investigations Reporter

Jessica Priest worked for the Victoria Advocate from August 2012-September 2019, first as the courts reporter and then as the environment/investigations reporter. Read her work now at

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