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Causeway accident cuts lifeline to island

by John Tedesco
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All content (c) San Antonio Express-News

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND — The collapse of the only road connecting this popular Gulf Coast island getaway to the mainland caused a ripple effect Saturday that disrupted thousands of lives.

Gas stations were packed early in the day with nervous motorists while a throng of people waited outside the island’s only supermarket, waiting for it to open.

But the manager – the only employee with the keys – was stuck on the other side of the Queen Isabella Causeway, which was closed early Saturday after an errant barge struck a support pillar and caused part of the road to collapse.

His arrival two hours late prompted cheers and a dash for bottled water, produce and milk, most of which disappeared by Saturday afternoon.

“I didn’t know we had that many people on the island,” said Bocho Sanchez, manager of the Blue Marlin supermarket.

Taken for granted by tourists as just another bridge to drive across, the causeway dominates the landscape of this South Texas community with its absence.

Tourists are leaving, city resources are stretched, and the 3,600 or so permanent residents who moved here for the isolation got more than they bargained for.

“Everybody’s on ‘Gilligan’s Island.’ We’re stuck,” said retiree Russ Stemple, one of the many residents who fell back on his island training and took a laid-back, shrug-your-shoulders attitude toward the problem.

But even with most people keeping their cool, the causeway is in many ways a lifeline to South Padre Island that is now severed, and everyone was affected.

Roughly 100 school-age children live on South Padre Island, but all the schools are across the Laguna Madre in Port Isabel.

Dolores Munoz, superintendent of the Point Isabel School District, spent Saturday making arrangements for private charter boats to transport students to and from the island starting Monday.

The costs will come out of the school budget, Munoz said, although the terms of the pending contracts with the boats’ owner have yet to be worked out.

“We’re really in a state of disbelief, not knowing what we’re really going to do,” she said.

There was little traffic Saturday on the island, even though officials had expected a strong showing of Mexican visitors this weekend to celebrate that country’s independence day.

The county park granting access to a portion of the public beach was closed, and many of the ferry passengers returning to the mainland were tourists cutting short their vacations.

Several conventions were planned in the coming months, including a Harley-Davidson “hog rally” next month. Most likely, they will have to be canceled, officials said.

“This place can’t survive without traffic, without tourism,” said Munoz’s husband, Dan, a real estate broker. “If this had happened a month ago in tourist season, it would have meant immediate disaster.”

A tourism magnet, South Padre Island has almost twice as many guest rooms as residents. According to a May report from the American Society of Association Executives, the island will have 5,900 hotel rooms, including condo rentals, with the completion of 400 hotel rooms planned this year.

Last year, an estimated 200,000 Spring Breakers flocked to the island, which makes millions of dollars off the rowdy mo nth of March.

City Alderman Gerald Sher, a retired doctor, said the accident puts a new focus on the city’s push to have a second causeway built.

The proposal has encountered interference in the past from interests that consider a second bridge a “boondoggle,” Sher said.

“We hope this will change their attitude toward us,” Sher said. “The city has been aware of this possibility for a number of years.”

The loss of tourism revenue from Winter Texans – transplants from Northern states – could have far-reaching effects. Besides stifling the flow of tourist dollars, the damaged causeway also affects employees living in Port Isabel who work in the island’s hotels and stores.

“This is going to be major,” Sher said. “We have become the playground of the whole state of Texas. Now we’re cut off.”

A network of tourist boats became makeshift ferries that gave free rides to hundreds of tourists and residents.

Taxis roamed parking lots as church volunteers drove people to airports and hotels and made sandwiches for them.

Kylie Mills, a 24-year-old resident of McAllen, carried a wedding dress slung over her back in a zipped bag as she looked for a taxi.

Her wedding on South Padre Island was canceled because family members were stuck on the mainland. Mills and two dozen people in her wedding party took a boat dubbed “Murphy’s Law” back to shore.

“We asked the captain to marry us on the boat, but he said he couldn’t because we weren’t in international waters,” Mills said.

jtedesco @ express-news.net

Staff Writer Kate Hunger contributed to this report.