My boyfriend Craig and I made the move to Rockport, Texas in the spring of 2005 for the purposes of opening an art gallery. After an intensive search for a property to house the gallery, we finally found what we were looking for in April of that year and began extensive renovations. The whole process of purchasing the property, making the renovations, making the connections with the artists we wanted to represent and acquiring the artwork, and setting up shop was an exhausting 5 months of nonstop work. Mailouts had been put in the mail; flyers had been put up around town. Finally, by mid-September, we were ready to open our doors!
On a sweltering day of 93° heat and high humidity, Church Street Gallery of Rockport held its grand opening on Thursday, September 15, 2005. The event we hosted was great fun—we catered in some food and I made specialty platters of my own, we served beer and wine, the place was packed with 100+ people at times, and we made great sales. Friends of mine drove down from Houston to cheer us on and stayed with us for the weekend; family and friends who could not attend sent flowers. Several of our Texas and Louisiana artists were on hand to meet people and introduce them to their artwork, which always helps a new gallery get off on the right foot. I made sure to invite other local gallery owners, in the hopes that we could create a camaraderie amongst ourselves. I felt we were finally on the map in Rockport!
Our sense of relief was palpable throughout the weekend. We had pulled it off! Traffic lightened up a bit on Saturday but then picked up again on Sunday as people headed back out of town and stopped in to make some last-minute purchases. I hadn’t smiled that much in a long, long time.
Incredibly, our sense of well-being and happiness was short-lived. Three days after our grand opening, a hurricane named Rita moved into the Gulf of Mexico, on September 18. The entire Gulf region was already on high alert after Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 hurricane that devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas less than a month earlier, and was responsible for approximately 1800 deaths. The New Orleans Convention Center was still actively being used as an evacuation and refugee center for the poor people that had been displaced by the flood waters from Katrina, so it was an ongoing tragedy in that city that everyone on the Gulf Coast was monitoring.
The initial projections for a Hurricane Rita landfall were wide and included the Rockport/Corpus Christi area, and we were issued a mandatory evacuation order. Neither Craig nor I had ever been through anything like this before, and we were scrambling to find out what to do. Just days after our exhausting grand opening push, we were now dismantling the entire gallery and moving all artwork to closets or attic spaces (any room without windows, actually hard to find in that house). We had an inordinate amount of glass artwork, so this meant wrapping everything in bubble wrap before packing it away. I was wrapping up jewelry in the tiny boxes and bags it was shipped in, rewrapping small wood sculpture pieces, photography and prints, while Craig was outdoors cutting plywood to fit our windows and screwing them in place with a power drill.
I was also disassembling my computer and monitors and wrapping them in plastic. We moved our glass-fronted jewelry display cases and small shelving, and anything that could act as a projectile, into the hallways. Meanwhile, I fired off a bulk email to our artists, trying to reassure them that we were doing all we could to protect their inventory.
At the time I hadn’t yet purchased “hurricane insurance” for the gallery property, the proper term being Texas Windstorm Insurance, only truly necessary for the 13 counties that border the Texas coastline. Ignorant about insurance at that time, I was certain that the regular homeowner’s policy I held on that structure would cover any damage from a hurricane.
Once we got the gallery property as secured as we possibly could, we went home to pack up our personal belongings. Because we were so exhausted from our efforts at the gallery, we did absolutely nothing to secure my personal home in the Country Club. We just tried to figure out where we would evacuate to. I thought of a good friend of mine, Uschi (short for Ursula) who lived in Austin and emailed her, asking if there was any way we could camp out at her place for a few days, but letting her know that we’d have my cat Valentine in tow.
Uschi replied immediately that we were welcome over the following weekend but she already had house guests for the next few days, but that she was allergic to cats. So, we could bring Valentine, but he’d have to stay in his carrier. She would react even if she never touched the cat but was in the same room with him. This was a bummer but there was nothing we could do about it; we’d have to figure out a way to deal with it.
The whole hurricane panic and aftermath is summed up nicely in an email to my friend Dave (not his real name), written a few weeks later.
From: Gail Bergan
Sent: Thursday, September 29, 2005, 5:04 PM
To: Dave XXXXXX
Subject: All joking aside…
Remember all those bad jokes we were telling about 6 months ago, about dodging hurricanes now that I live on the Gulf Coast? Hmmm….not so funny in reality, it turns out. Got my first taste of a panicked evacuation last week, just 3 days after the end of our grand opening weekend of the gallery. When they thought early on that the hurricane had this wide cone of influence, could go anywhere from Corpus Christi to f**king Miami practically, they ordered a mandatory evacuation that we hear about 10 am Wednesday, effective 3 pm the very same day. We look around at each other, stunned. No f**king way?! We had to move about $100,000 worth of artwork to the second story of the gallery and try to secure it somehow, away from windows, etc., unplug computers and credit card terminals and move that stuff upstairs, wrap it in plastic (back up everything first to my laptop, of course), pull important files from file cabinets, board up the place, which took about 6 hours, THEN just barely have time to go home, pack a few bags, do the same to the computers and files, and book it out of here, all the while with police driving through the streets with bullhorns going “GET OUT. MANDATORY EVACUATION. ALL PEOPLE MUST LEAVE.” If you don’t think that isn’t frightening and totally unnerving, think again. At home I didn’t have time to secure anything, barely lock the doors and leave. Probably the only time in my life that I was more worried about someone else’s shit rather than my own.
THEN, we were traveling with my kitty cat Valentine, who wanted to get out of his box at some point, so we let him loose in the car. We had to stop for gas and so we were at a gas station and when we opened the car doors to get out and stretch our legs, I grabbed the cat so he wouldn’t bolt out the car door. I was holding him outside (stupid) and he freaked at the sound of the semitrucks and leaped out of my arms and just ran as fast as he could toward this large field near the gas station. This was about 10:30 at night on Wednesday in this little speck of a town (Kenedy, TX) along 181 to San Antonio. We called and called for him and searched for about a half hour, but it was clear he wasn’t coming back. At that point we were exhausted from having to pack up the gallery and leave, the whole stress of the day, and we didn’t know what was coming behind us in terms of the hurricane, so we felt that we just had to go. What an awful thing to have happen on top of everything else. I was really kicking myself for being so stupid. We stopped at that same station on the way home and looked for him again, hope against hope that he would be hanging out there, but to no avail. What a bummer.
So, after all this, spending two nights in a San Antonio hotel and another two in Austin, we not only do not get a hurricane, we don’t even get a damn inch of rain out of the deal. It’s dry as a bone when we come home on Sunday. I lose my cat for no good reason, we get no rain, and we lost what was some great momentum with our grand opening. It seems like everyone booked out of town and has forgotten about us again. We probably should have a grand re-opening or something “Hey, remember us? You loved us 2 weeks ago!”
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Bummed in Rockport
While in Austin, we were so traumatized by the whole experience that while we were staying with my very gracious friend and her two small children in their beautiful home, we did not even mention losing our cat at the gas station. We did our best to be grateful guests, going along with them to an Austin arts festival and to the Deep Eddy swimming pool, trying not to show how shell-shocked we felt inside. Uschi was bending over backward to make us feel welcome and to help us make the best of a bad situation, and I knew if I brought up the cat I was just going to burst into tears, so I didn’t bring it up.
In my thank-you email to her afterward, I did tell her what happened with Valentine, and that it was just one more reason why we were so on edge. She responded very sympathetically, and said “You know, I was wondering about the cat! For some reason I thought at the last minute you found some boarding for him, and then didn’t remember to ask you about it! I’m so, so sorry.”
When we returned to Rockport, it was like returning to a boarded-up ghost town. Not only did it take us what seemed like weeks to take the boards down and get everything looking back to normal, it seemed like it took the town forever to get back to normal as well. I came to see in a very real way how even a “false-alarm” hurricane can have a devastating effect on a business and on a local economy.*
When a hurricane is headed your way and you don’t know which direction that hurricane track is going to take, you start preparing and watching. If there is a mandatory evacuation—again, you still don’t know if it is really headed your way or not. Despite the “holdouts” you see on the news, most people do comply. You close your business, you board up your facility, you secure everything that can be secured, you send your workers home. If they are on salary, they get paid anyway; if they are hourly or contractors, they don’t. Then you evacuate, and wait.
If it’s a false alarm, you come back in a few days, take the boards down, put everything back, and breathe a sigh of relief. But even then you’ve lost—at minimum—a week of business coming in the door, a week of productivity, a week of salary where no work was performed, or a week of hourly wages if you were one of those hourly workers. If you live in a tourist town, you’ve lost a lot more than that. You have to wait for those tourists to feel comfortable coming back and spending money again.
That year in Rockport, it wasn’t until the Thanksgiving holiday that we saw a significant influx in tourism again. On top of the hurricane jumpiness there was a spike in gas prices, and people weren’t traveling anywhere. This is what the threat of a hurricane can do to a coastal community. It wasn’t just my gallery that was suffering, but being my first few months in business, I felt it pretty keenly.
After returning from the evacuation, I got a reality check from my insurance agent and purchased the necessary windstorm insurance for the gallery property—a whopping $4,000 on top of the homeowner’s policy I already had on it. I dodged a bullet when the hurricane didn’t, in fact, make landfall in Rockport and I didn’t have to learn the hard way that my homeowner’s policy wouldn’t have covered one dime of any damage because of any ol’ hurricane. Lesson learned: homeowner’s covers floods from waters rising up; windstorm covers floods from waters falling down. And from little things like the wind ripping the roof off your house.
I lived on the Texas Gulf Coast for 13 years, and it’s a beautiful place to live and a great playground if you love nature and the great outdoors. But I lived through more hurricane scares than I care to remember and finally, the real thing with Hurricane Harvey. I now get a visceral reaction every time I see a hurricane forming in the Gulf and I see those lines of cars evacuating on the news. I say a prayer for those poor people, and I encourage you to do the same. Even if it’s a false alarm, their losses can be substantial, including orange kitty cats named Valentine.
*[Epilogue: Hurricane Rita was a false alarm only for us in the western half of the Gulf of Mexico. It was the real thing on the other side of the Gulf. It reached Category 5 status on September 21 with winds of 180 mph; then weakened to a Category 3 hurricane before making landfall in Johnson’s Bayou, Louisiana, between Sabine Pass, Texas and Holly Beach, Louisiana, and just east of Galveston, Texas, with winds of 115 mph. Extensive rainfall from this event aggravated the recovery efforts that were ongoing from Hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans and other areas affected by that storm. 120 deaths in Texas and Louisiana are attributed to Rita, the highest numbers being reported from the Houston and Galveston areas.]
The above story is an excerpt from my upcoming memoir, with the working title of Three Hurricanes and a Wedding (Not Necessarily in that Order). Related excerpts: Guard Your Heart in a Crisis: You May be an Easy Target for Manipulation.
If you would like to submit a story to GAIL’S STORY blog, submissions are open! I invite you to peruse my submission requirements, and if you have any further questions, you can reach me via my Contact page.