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Where Hurricane Harvey made landfall, tough Texans begin to clear the wreckage

ROCKPORT, Texas — Since Hurricane Harvey slammed into his hometown on Friday night, Colin McBurney has become his own first responder — a 16-year-old in a backward baseball cap with bare feet, a pistol and a truck. He drove to the houses of his neighbors all weekend, checking on the people no one had heard from.

One friend made the kind of request people make in this bay town of nearly 11,000 whose spirit is equal parts fishing village, millionaire's retreat and working-class country: Please get the horse.

Right before sunset Saturday, McBurney, still in bare feet and beach shorts, tied a piece of rope into a leash and waded into his friend's flooded front yard. She had evacuated, but her horse, Stew, had wandered out of the stable through the busted fence. McBurney walked past the blown-down barn, put the leash on Stew and led the horse back to the stable.

"We're just going to get through this together," said McBurney, a student at the storm-damaged Rockport-Fulton High School.

The most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in decades has damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes, apartments, businesses, churches and government offices, killing at least one resident in a mobile home fire. Rockport is a piece of rural Texas on the water, sandwiched between Copano Bay and Aransas Bay, separated from the Gulf of Mexico by thin strips of islands. Not far from its palm-beach-lined waterfront, cattle graze. Not far from its multimillion-dollar mansions, there are trailer parks, water towers and homes with boats in the front and pigs in the back.

Or at least there were.

Post-Harvey, Rockport is a wreck. The sweet stench of gas pervades. The town is dry in parts but wind-battered and littered with downed power lines and tilting utility poles in others. Loose, wounded dogs wander the streets. The nearby overpasses are lined with cars and trucks since word spread quickly that they were the only place to get cellphone or internet service.

On Sunday, the disaster response took on a military feel. More than a dozen six-wheeled military vehicles used a grocery store parking lot as a forward staging area, part of an Air National Guard and Army National Guard brigade that arrived to assist local officials.

"The coined phrase is Texans helping Texans, and that's what we're doing," said Senior Master Sgt. Robert Shelley with the Air National Guard's 149th Fighter Wing.

Rockport is known for its duck hunting and its expert fishing guides. It was named for the rock ledge under its shore, and like its name, its people are the solid sort, not easily moved by much, including the threat of hurricanes.

On Sunday morning, a resident of Glass Avenue grabbed armsful of fallen tree limbs that made a mess of his street. "A little here, a little there," Jeff Thornton Jr. said as he put the branches in neat piles.

No one elected Thornton, 67, but he is known as the street's mayor regardless, because he has lived in the same house on the same block for more than 60 years. With a pocketknife in a holster on his belt, dressed in blue jeans, a sleeveless muscle shirt and a camouflage cap, Thornton was more rural than coastal at heart, much like his town.

As Hurricane Harvey approached Friday evening, Thornton did what everyone on the block expected him to do — he stayed put. When the first Category 4 hurricane to make landfall in Texas since 1961 finally struck, the storm hit near Rockport as Thornton sat on a stool in his garage, the last remaining soul on his block of Glass Avenue, a short walk from the water's edge.

"I always stay for the storms," Thornton said. "I don't run off. I've been in that house since I was 3 years old. I've been through Celia, Beulah, Carla, all the storms around here. Hey, I got a neighborhood to take care of."

Thornton's neighborhood was a mess. Century-old oak trees littered the street or leaned precariously against homes. The hurricane ripped off the roof of a house just four doors down from Thornton. National Guard and Coast Guard helicopters flew low overhead. Neighbors returning to their homes hugged Thornton when they saw him on the street.

Thornton was at once surly and sweet. Moments after he kicked away tree debris, frustrated at the damage done to the street he loves, he saw a wounded bird amid the broken branches. He called to it with his arms out, trying to soothe it.

"Oh, little feller, come here, come here," he said. The bird limped through the debris, stretched out its wings and flew away.

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http://www.tampabay.com/news/weather/hurricanes/where-hurricane-harvey-made-landfall-tough-texans-begin-to-clear-the/2335361