Tourists return to area ravaged by hurricane

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Nov. 27, 2017 at 10:18 p.m.
Updated Nov. 28, 2017 at 6 a.m.

Birders, from front, Sue  Sneddon, of North Carolina; Grace Nordhoff, of Washington; and Linda Matson, of Arizona, look for birds during a tour.

Birders, from front, Sue Sneddon, of North Carolina; Grace Nordhoff, of Washington; and Linda Matson, of Arizona, look for birds during a tour.   Angela Piazza for The Victoria Advocate

FULTON - They were enthralled and cheering like proud parents at a Little League game.

"Get it! Get it!"

But they weren't at a game; they weren't even on dry land.

More than 30 people were aboard the Skimmer as one of nature's marvels tried to snag a snake.

"These guys were on the verge of extinction, so we're really lucky to see them," Jeff Culler said about the grus americana.

It reared up and extended its black-tipped wings, all 71/2 feet of them, to much awe and applause.

Culler and his friend, Joe Hanfman, flew from Maryland to see the grus americana, or whooping crane, and dozens of other species of birds that call the area home part or all of the year.

Sandy Jumper, the director of tourism and events for the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce, said she can't overstate the importance of their visits to an area still on the long road to recovery from Hurricane Harvey.

Hanfman said they were forced to stay in Portland because the hotels closest to where Capt. Tommy Moore leaves from Fulton Harbor either had no vacancies or were damaged.

Hanfman has come to Rockport three times before and has seen whooping cranes in Wisconsin and Nebraska, too.

"Even though I knew I'd see the same birds, I still wanted to come," he said. "If you want to see whooping cranes up close, this is the best place to do it."

About 16.3 million people left home to bird-watch in 2016, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

That year, all wildlife watchers spent about $11.6 million on their trips, dropping cash for not only food, lodging and transportation but also guide fees and equipment rentals.

Peering through their binoculars, the bird-watchers found five more whooping cranes foraging for wolf berries at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Some were rust-colored chicks that had made the trip of more than 3,000 miles from Canada for the first time.

"That'd make a good picture," Bill Siever said, elbowing Linda Matson.

"I'm on it," she said while whipping out her digital camera.

The couple from Tuscon, Ariz., canceled their tour with Moore when they saw a picture of his boat upside down on Facebook only to rebook it.

"I felt guilty. I felt like a jerk, and ultimately, it kind of backfired because places were booking up so fast. But we ended up finding a tiny Airbnb cottage in Rockport. We wanted to stay in Rockport to support them," Matson said.

They flew to Texas for the first time to attend the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Harligen the week before.

Others had come from North Carolina and Washington state.

They chuckled when they realized they'd mistaken a feral hog nearby for a boulder, and minutes later, they learned how the whooping cranes got their name when the birds expressed displeasure with the hog's proximity.

Sometimes, when they scanned the horizon, they found a toppled trash can in the coastal marsh. But other than that, Harvey did not cast a shadow over the day.

For example, one of boat's propellers snapped off on the way back to the harbor, but no one complained about going 8 knots instead of 25. All the more time to spot the tri-colored heron, the white ibis, the snowy egret and the seaside sparrow.

When they docked, the bird-watchers headed to Charlotte Plummer's, a seafood restaurant just a short walk away.

Carl Griffin reopened the restaurant and a gift shop across the street in mid-September.

"We got a lot of hugs the first few days," he said.

Griffin was fighting off a cold while overseeing construction projects at The Inn at Fulton Harbor, where some bird-watchers professed they would have preferred to stay, and at his home.

He said the hurricane's 150 mph winds damaged the inn's soffits and water ruined 44 rooms.

Despite the damage, he hopes to reopen the inn by Dec. 15.

He hired a contractor from California. That contractor agreed to go ahead with the repairs even though Griffin is still working out the details with his insurance company.

"I have a lot of people working on faith right now," he said.

Jatin Bhatka's La Quinta is open, but its guests are contractors and insurance agents instead of tourists.

His Fairfield Inn and Hampton Inn in Rockport both have to be completely gutted and likely won't reopen for eight months to a year, Bhatka said.

From November to April last year, Moore gave 120 tours, each carrying about 25 people.

Although this year is bound to be different, he was nevertheless optimistic. He even referred some people who like to photograph birds to Lori and Kevin Sims, who run Aransas Bay Birding Charters.

"I'm glad our birders persevere like our birds do," Moore said.

Jumper, of the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce, agreed. She updates a list of businesses that are open. Last week, there were more than 300, and the list is growing every day.

"Of course, we'd love to have them stay here, but if that's not possible, Corpus Christi is not that far of a drive. If you've come all this way, what's an hour's drive?" she said.

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Helpful information

Where to get water, gas and other supplies

Helpful information after the storm

Updates on city services



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