After enduring devastating damage from Hurricane Harvey last year, A family-owned RV park on the Colorado River in La Grange, Texas, rebounds
Getting our first look at Colorado Landing RV Park was jaw-dropping, to say the least. We gaped in awe, as in awful: “Oh, my! Geez! Look at that!” Colorado Landing in La Grange, Texas, wasn’t initially in our travel plans, but when I received notice that our reservations near Lake Somerville were canceled due to flood damage from Hurricane Harvey, I searched for other RV parks.
Colorado Landing, a Good Sam Park with 9.5- to 10-point ratings and five-star reviews, looked nice on its website. When I called to make reservations, Sydney Newhouse answered and said the park had indeed incurred “some” damage, but that RV sites were available with water, electric and sewer connections. Since flooding in the area had been an issue, I asked, “Is it muddy, and will I get stuck?” She assured me that it wasn’t and I wouldn’t, and that it was “clear of nails.” That last comment surprised me, and I jokingly replied, “So I won’t get a flat tire either!”
Arriving at Colorado Landing 10 days later, I thought “some” damage was an understatement. The broad concrete road leading to the gravel sites was clear and swept clean; however, both sides were cluttered with debris and damaged homes. RVs were askew, most lying on their sides stacked against trees, with others toppled, twisted and butted up against each other. Mobile homes were detached from their moorings with underpinnings, porches and walkways ripped away. One home lay broken and crumpled a few yards from a plot of bare, brown earth dotted with cinderblock pilings, no doubt its one-time foundation. Several rooftops lay on the ground with walls crushed beneath them.
Picnic tables, swings, chairs, a baby’s shoe and all sorts of other unnatural “fruit” were hanging from trees. The swimming pool was filled with mucky gray-green water. Cabanas were mere piles of wood pushed against the stubborn leaning fence. Clothing, household items, furniture, lumber, sheet metal and toys were everywhere. Some lay in piles started as an effort to clean up, but most of it was still simply scattered, left lying where the floodwaters abandoned them.
We found the temporary office, a motorhome near the end of the avenue. An elderly gentleman greeted us and invited us to come in out of the Texas October heat. Once we were inside, he offered us a seat and began the check-in process. We commented about the damage to the park, and he replied, “It looks good now.”
If this was good, I can’t imagine what it was earlier. He was kind and soft-spoken, with a hint of weariness in his voice and expression, while commenting that they were doing all they could to get things cleaned up and running again. He held up an inch-thick blue folder. “This is what you have to fill out to get a loan.”
Our registration completed, he showed me the location of our site on a park map. As I started to ask if this was our copy, he said, “Sorry. That’s the only one we have left right now.” As we parted, he quietly and somewhat apologetically said, “Thank you for staying with us.”
Hearing the reports and watching the news and film coverage is nothing like viewing the destruction in person and seeing and hearing the reality in the faces and voices of those impacted. My heart ached, and I felt tremendous empathy for this kind man.
I, like so many others, had watched the news reports as Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the Texas coast in the late evening of Friday, August 25, 2017. Harvey was a record-breaking storm in more ways than one. Primarily, it didn’t follow the traditional storm trajectory of weakening as it moved inland. It stuck and meandered around the coast for days, dumping record rainfalls that measured from 10 inches at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin in the west to 60 inches in Nederland, Texas, on the eastern edge of the storm.
In the middle of this area along the Colorado River lies La Grange, Texas. With 25 inches of rain in La Grange and similar amounts upriver, Colorado River Landing was in the crosshairs of the rising waters and, sadly, took a direct hit, even though it is located on high bluffs.
The next morning I saw the elderly man near our site and introduced myself. He told me he was Bill Whorton, co-owner of the park.
“Looking around, I can’t even imagine what this is like for you,” I said.
“It’s devastating! I just tried to turn some water on and discovered the pipe’s busted,” he said. “Every time I try to do something, I find something else that needs fixing. We lost the piece of equipment that handles the cable in the park. It will cost $25,000 to replace.”
According to www.water.weather.gov, at its crest on August 28, the river was at 54.18 feet. To put that number in perspective, 37 feet is considered major flood stage. The last time the water was near this level was in 1913, when it was at 56.4 feet. Harvey had spawned the 100-year flood.
“Some of these mobile homes you see lying around were in that mobile-home park way over there,” Bill said as he pointed to a cluster of mobile homes about a quarter of a mile upriver. “They floated through here, causing a lot of the damage.”
“Really!” I replied. I made arrangements to talk with him more.
On Monday morning, while walking to meet with Bill, I met a fellow and greeted him: “Hello. How are you today?”
His response was, “Well, it can only get better from here.”
“What’s that about?” I asked.
“It’s about a hurricane!”
“Oh, are you the co-owner?” I asked.
He extended his hand and introduced himself, “Yes, Charlo Whorton.”
“Whorton? That’s the same as…,” I said.
“Yes. He’s my dad.”
“So the park is a family operation?”
“Yes, it is.”
Charlo and I talked outside the original office and community building while workers gutted the interior. Charlo pointed out the high-water mark on the building, a double-wide mobile home, at the top of the window where the familiar red, round Good Sam Park decal was placed. The water hadn’t lifted the building from its foundation, so they plan to refinish the inside.
Charlo’s afraid if he moves the building out, he won’t be allowed to move another one in, since there was talk that the city of La Grange isn’t going to allow mobile homes back in the area. According to the Fayette County Record, the local newspaper, the city is placing some restrictions on new mobile-home placements.
When Bill joined us, I learned more. The father-and-son team bought the park in October 2004 after Charlo retired from the U.S. Navy, where he served as a photographer. “It was my retirement job!” he said. The park had been primarily a mobile-home park, but they’ve worked over the years to establish it as an RV park by allowing the number of mobile homes to decrease by natural attrition.
Charlo said, “I know that RVers don’t really like to be next to permanent mobile homes. I have property over there for long-term and permanent stays,” he gestured. At the time of the flooding, full-time residents occupied only eight of the 84 RV sites.
Charlo and his family had lived in a residential treehouse built high above the ground on one of the terraced bluffs of the riverfront for their first 10 years at Colorado Landing. He recalled high water rising under the house a couple of times, but “never like this.”
A few years ago, after they learned that building on the RV park property wasn’t feasible, he and his wife bought a large home in nearby Schulenburg, and his parents live with them. His daughter, Sydney, and her two-year-old son, Colin, lived in the park, and Sydney helped with the daily operations. They also are now living with Charlo, as their home was destroyed. “Good thing it’s a large house,” he chuckled.
During the hurricane, as the water was rising, Charlo was monitoring the creek level. He knew that at 42 feet the river backed up into the creek, and it was in the creek on Sunday morning, August 27. The police arrived and gave a two-hour evacuation order at noon on Sunday. Sydney and other residents grabbed what they could and left, not knowing what they might return to.
The river crested on Monday and began to recede, even though the local police continued to restrict access for a month. Charlo and Bill weren’t allowed onto their property. “A public health hazard,” they were told. This was aggravating as they could clearly see that the water was down. Charlo was threatened with arrest if he entered the property.
The aftermath and cleanup efforts have been filled with financial concerns and frustrations for the Whortons. The park was completely booked the weekend of October 6 to 8 for the antique festival in nearby Warrenton and Round Top, a regular event and major draw for the park. All those bookings had to be refunded. The utilities were restored, but the electricity was turned on before the water. Before the electricity could be tested and used, the utility boxes had to be washed. “We had to haul in water to wash the utility boxes!” said Charlo.
Charlo began the application process for assistance, but the overlapping bureaucracy thwarted him. He went to the Small Business Administration three times and was then told to go to FEMA. FEMA sent him to the county judge. Finally, he was approved for a six-month small-business loan, and that’s his current working capital. The only structure covered by FEMA insurance was the treehouse.
All the park facilities are located on a bluff 30 to 40 feet above the river, which would reasonably make flooding such a remote possibility that flood insurance seemed unnecessary. Other than the small-business loan, the outlook for disaster assistance is bleak, so to help with cash flow, they continue to work tirelessly to get more sites cleaned up and available for guests.
They face other obstacles as well, such as looters. Those mobile homes that floated through the park and settled on their property are theirs to deal with. The insurance companies should eventually pay for the removal, but the Whortons have to actually manage it. At the time of this writing, they were planning to rent a Bobcat truck with a grapple arm to pick up the large debris, but availability was scarce since most were being used in the hard-hit Houston area.
I asked them what they were thinking and feeling when they came back and saw the destruction.
“Overwhelmed,” Bill said quietly.
With a sly grin, Charlo said, “I should have sold it when I had the chance!” More seriously, he added, “Just bad for my family. My daughter and grandson lost everything.”
“With the obstacles to rebuilding, what keeps you motivated?” I asked.
Charlo responded, “Family! It’s a family business. We have a lot of repeat, regular visitors who’re like family. We want our visitors to feel like family. Campers and RVers are just good people, remarkable. I love doing this business.” Charlo added that they will rebuild and expect to “exceed the excellence of before [the flood].” The price tag on the rebuild is $1.2 million.
I asked if I could take a picture of them, and Bill said, “Let me go change my shirt. My wife doesn’t like me wearing this.” “This” was jeans, T-shirt and suspenders. As Bill walked away to change, I asked Charlo how old his father was.
“He’s 81 and keeps moving,” he replied.
“Wow! He’s something else!”
“Yes, he is,” Charlo said quietly. The affection in his voice was loud and clear.
When we departed, I wished them all the best. Colorado Landing RV Park is coming back. If you’re in the area or planning a trip to La Grange, Texas, to visit the many antique festivals and painted churches, do stay with them.
I certainly will.
Cost of Recovery
Owners of Colorado Landing RV Park Charlo and Bill Whorton welcome volunteer help and appreciate the many volunteers who have lent a hand with the cleanup, including local groups and repeat guests. The family has offered discounts to RVers who volunteer, and even free sites, although Charlo states, “Most have insisted on paying.” That’s proof of his earlier statement, “RVers are just good people.”
Colorado Landing RV Park | 979-968-9465 | www.coloradolanding.com
Major Work Completed
• Damaged RVs and mobile homes have been removed.
• $40,000 worth of debris and trash removal has been completed.
• Water, electric and sewer utilities have been restored.
• New satellite-TV dish and fiber-optic cables are in place, and distribution installation is ongoing.
• 74 RV sites are clean and available for use.
Major Work Remaining
• An estimated 60 large dumpsters worth of crushed debris and trash are yet to be removed.
• The swimming pool needs to be cleaned and repaired.
• 100 picnic tables need to be replaced.