Three days into his first head principal job, Gruver native Jim Potts was evacuating Port Aransas High School.
Hurricane Harvey had surged up the intensity scale to a Category 4 storm, and by Friday, Aug. 25, it was locked on a direct course for Port Aransas and surrounding Coastal Bend communities.
As predicted, Harvey swirled across the Texas coast and blasted Port Aransas as that area's worst storm since 1970, slamming the resort town with 130 mph winds. Among the thousands of structures Harvey shredded were Port Aransas Independent School District facilities.
"When I got here and saw the school, I knew people were going to be down because it was a very sad sight," Potts recently said by phone. The city's infrastructure was in tatters. Families had lost everything, and whether they would even be able to return was uncertain.
When school would resume was anyone's guess.
During Harvey's onslaught and aftermath, Potts kept in touch with his college buddy and former fellow Randall High School coach Derek Daniel, who now is principal at Claude High School.
"I can't imagine what it would be like to be a brand new principal and that happens," Daniel said.
Daniel offered up whatever help he could. Harvey's destruction was so widespread that Potts doubted many of his students even had clothing.
"I'll tell you what we need more than anything is a morale boost," Potts told Daniel. "I'd love to hand out to everybody a T-shirt."
Daniel contacted Claude Independent School District school board member Todd Peden, owner of screenprinting business Graphic INK. A design was made showing the new friendship between the two mascots with the slogan:
"HEY HARVEY #MARLINPRIDERUNSDEEP. Marlin STRONG, Mustang PROUD, TEXAS TOUGH."
Claude students then went to work. They started fundraisers, including "passing the bucket" at football games and class competitions. Soon, the tally topped $4,000.
Students from elementary to high school took shifts at Graphic INK making, folding and boxing the shirts.
The Mustangs' grit and determination yielded 800 shirts, which they shipped to their new cross-state friends in time for Port Aransas ISD's second first day of school on Monday, Oct. 16.
"I think the neat thing is Port Aransas, the Marlins, are actually located on Mustang Island," Daniel said. "It just all ended up intertwining perfectly."
The students are continuing their T-shirt sales in Claude. Daniel said the district anticipates sending an extra $1,700 to Port Aransas ISD for reconstruction by the end of the campaign.
"These kids – I've never been around a group of kids like them," Daniel said. "They are the most giving students. You tell them, 'Hey, we need some help' and you'll just be overwhelmed.
"These guys do stuff like that all the time and they don't even think twice about it."
Disaster recovery always is a long process. Port Aransas teachers and staff rallied for seven weeks to get schools reopened. The University Interscholastic League cleared the way for Port Aransas High School extra-curricular activities to resume. The school's cross-country track team can be seen running in packs around town. The district's students are scattered among more than 50 portable buildings while renovations begin.
Families still are weighing decisions to rebuild or start lives elsewhere. "More students than not are deciding to come back," Potts said, estimating about 80 percent of his students registered to return. "Port Aransas is such a special place that they're making it so their students can come back."
Recovery is helped along by the support of districts like Claude ISD and its T-shirt fundraiser and other districts such as Gruver ISD's $2,000 donation, support from Vega ISD and countless other school districts and anonymous donors across Texas and beyond.
The support forms unbreakable bonds, Potts said, and his students are overwhelmed by the support.
"Just to know that somebody cares and wants to help means a lot," he said.