As he climbs into his 4x4 pickup truck on a somewhat stormy Friday morning, June 13, the Park Superintendent of Sea Rim State Park, Ben Herman, made room for his passenger amid radio gear, a small bit of paperwork and an M4 assault rifle racked safely overhead.
“Oh yeah,” he smiled. “The mobile office.”
The park’s newest superintendent has had plenty of work this last year as he readies the new park for its grand opening Friday, June 20. Hurricane Rita huffed and puffed in 2005, Herman said, but it wasn’t until Hurricane Ike in 2008 that the park’s proverbial house blew in.
“It was demolished,” Herman said. “It was a one-two punch in that Rita knocked us down, but we were within two weeks of reopening when Ike came. Ike put this park under 16 foot of water. All of our infrastructure was gone.”
What was left was a state park and national treasure in total ruin. Roads, buildings and other amenities were washed out to sea in one of the worst storms in Texas history.
“The storm itself coming in didn’t do as much damage as the water going out,” Herman said. “The water going out, anything it would catch on like roads or buildings, it would undermine the sand underneath it and just wash it out to sea. It really did a number on us.”
To mitigate the problem of no roads and washed-out dunes that had helped protect the park, Herman and other park officials garnered millions in Texas Parks and Wildlife Department money and coupled that with funds awarded them from the BP oil spill to replace much of the washed-away amenities.
“The initial dollar amount was $2 million. That was just to start the logistics of (getting) our buildings back: the shop, my residence, a basic setup for the headquarters and stuff, sewer facilities,” Herman said. “Now, along the way, the TxDOT project was right in around $2.5 (million). Then we had several minor repair projects. They’re ranging right around $40,000. Plus we’ve hit some BP grants to do stuff like our fish cleaning shelter, Willow Trail over here. That one was $210,000, then we got $187,000 to redo the dunes up front. We’ve been kind of hitting pots of money all over the place to bring a total package together.”
And come together it has. The park now boasts 15 RV electric/water hookups, new roads, a new boardwalk extending over the dunes to the crashing waves of the Gulf of Mexico, the Gambusia boardwalk and a cabin that is quickly filling up with reservations for fisherman, birdwatchers and hunters from around the U.S.
“Everything we built out here meets the Dade County windstorm standards, so hopefully any decent storm, we’ll still survive,” Herman said. “Of course, if we get another Ike out here, it’s all going to be gone again. But the good thing was Ike was rare. You talk to residents out here and storms like that just didn’t happen. You’ve got to go all the way back to the 1800s.”
If you happen to attend the grand opening, the Gambusia boardwalk is a must see. Brown pelicans and blue crabs frequent the three-quarter mile boardwalk, which hovers perfectly over the marsh, extending out in a loop toward the Gulf of Mexico. If you walk quietly, you might even see a few alligators and rare bird species.
Park-goers might also see the frequent and expansive brush fires that blaze in the area when lightning strikes the dry grasslands that surround the park. Indeed, a look to the north revealed a wall of smoke and flames masking the refineries toward Port Arthur.
“It actually just picked up a little bit more. There’s actually another fire over here on McFaddin,” Laura Horner, a park ranger said. “That was started by lighting as well, along with one on J.D. Murphree as well just from the thunder and lightning. It’s still pretty early, but actually when it does burn like that, it tends to burn in a straight line going through. But we’ve been watching it. The lack of wind isn’t helping much and the rain actually spread it out a little more.”
Herman said fires are more than common and actually drive redfish and speckled trout toward the park’s cabin and canal area.
“It doesn’t bother us. We are all for fires. Fires are supposed to happen,” Herman said. “We do prescribe fires. They help the underbrush cut down, help the plants grow and decrease our fuel load so it’s a more controlled fire and we can hopefully not burn things down we don’t want to burn down. It’s a healthy thing.”
As a crew puts the finishing touches on Sea Rim’s new cabin, Herman said he’s excited for the potential draw of the reasonably-priced, handicap accessible cabin.
“This is our boat ramp area. This used to be our marshland office, but we’ve converted it into a cabin that you can rent,” he said opening the door. “This turned out pretty well. This sleeps six, full kitchen, full bath. It’s $95 a night. It’s got a $50 cleaning deposit on it so if you keep it clean, you get that back. It’s not bad. Not bad at all.”
Outside, fisherman sat with lines and full crab traps in the water. A few feet away, the park’s new kayak trail sign awaits those who’re looking to explore the areas of the park few have ventured.
“The thing about the park is, the park is 4,141 acres,” Herman said. “The little beach unit up here is about 150, so the part we use is about right in here (near the Gulf of Mexico). That’s the only part we use, so we’re trying to diversify and get more traffic throughout the entire park because, man, there are parts back in there that are beautiful. So the paddling trails give us a tool to move into some of that.”
Herman also stressed the park’s upcoming public duck hunts, which are filling reservations. If you hurry, Herman said you might be able to get a spot.
“I think this time around we’re looking at doing some apartments,” Herman said. “Of course, all the duck hunters in the world were asking about the cabin because they want to stay there and ship out right in the morning. So, it ought to be a pretty good draw for us.”
Herman said prospective bird watchers will love the Willow Trail, previously frequented by birders the world over.
“This was the first stop for migratory birds coming back in from the Gulf of Mexico, so the draw for the birders here was huge,” Herman said. “Our Audubon Society, as soon as I announced that we are going to initiate funds to rebuild this thing, they were fanatic.”
As he stood overlooking the entire expansive park from the wrap-around walkway surrounding his 20-foot-high residence, Herman smiled as he thought of what the future holds for Sea Rim.
“Yeah, it’s coming along,” he said. “We’re definitely glad to move away from construction and go back to being in the park business again. It’s been a long time coming.”
Clay Thorp can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 225, or by e-mail at clay [at] theexaminer [dot] com.