Port Isabel native Valerie D. Bates vividly remembers the morning of Sept. 15, 2001, the agony of waiting for the victims to be pulled from the Laguna Madre under the Queen Isabella Causeway and the reconstruction that followed after a steel-laden barge tragically knocked out a section of the bridge.
Bates was the first photographer on the scene that morning as the tragedy unfolded blocks from her house. Her first shot was at 4:34 a.m.
“Photographically speaking, this was an event that happened in my backyard. My camera compelled me to go catch as much of it as possible,” Bates said Monday, reflecting back 20 years on the scene that unfolded as authorities first focused on recovering the victims and then rebuilding the bridge.
Because the tragedy occurred so close to 9/11, some initially feared that the two events were somehow connected. They weren’t, but the Texas Department of Transportation was stretched thin and ended up using Bates, then a jeweler and freelance photographer, to document the causeway collapse from beginning to end, a process that took about 50 days. She also supplied photographs to the local newspapers.
“There was a lot of uncertainty as far as wondering when that connection to South Padre Island was going to be repaired. In hindsight, it was extraordinarily quick, but when we were living it, without the knowledge of when that end date was going to be, it seemed slow. I was amazed at how creative and resourceful and resilient both communities were,” Bates said.
Bates took thousands of photographs over the course of the recovery and reconstruction project. TxDOT purchased a selection of them, which it assembled into a VHS tape that played for years at the Texas Travel Information Center on Expressway 77/83, now Interstate 69, in Harlingen.
“This was pre-social media and you used the tools you had to communicate. It was a 10-15 minute video that played in their theater room,” she said
In 2003, Bates became the marketing director for the City of Port Isabel. She’s also built up her freelance business.
“For me, the camera was a bit of a filter between me and the bridge. I was compelled to document it even before I had any professional relationships. It became my job. I just did this because I was a block and a half away from it and I just wanted to capture it. Being able to have that filter between me and the disaster was in many ways cathartic,” she said.
Within the first 24 hours after the collapse there was a second collapse, forcing authorities to halt recovery efforts until it was determined the rest of the bridge was secure.
“It was a very sobering moment in the middle of many other sobering moments,” Bates said. Once the recovery effort started it was painful.
“People had realized who was missing and who they were looking for, and of course that was very heart-wrenching,” she said.
Bates personally knew several of the victims.
“The effect of the loss of friends and neighbors was profound, heartbreaking, and impossible to come to grips with,” she said. “It was some time before recovery was completed and that was extraordinarily difficult as the communities and friends and families waited and waited. I remember the day when most of the vehicles were pulled from the waters and put on a nearby barge. I remember that like it was yesterday. Indelible.”
Because she documented the project for TxDOT, Bates remembers what happened.
She remembers Winter Texans making the decision to have their RVs ferried to the Island and then lining up on the shoreline every day with their lawn chairs and binoculars to watch the construction.
Early on, Billy Kenon’s front-loading craft was pressed into service “for the widest variety of things,” Bates said, everything from moving saddle horses to pasture on the mainland to taking fuel tankers back and forth to keep commerce moving on the Island.
“So the school district had to figure out how to get the kids back and forth to school. It was completely different and it changed tourism,” Bates said.
The arrival of a ferry from South Carolina played a big role. Bates said it was amazing how quickly the ferry landings went up so that life could reach a semblance of normal.
“We still had so many people in the Rio Grande Valley that wanted to support Port Isabel and the Island that they would make the trip down and would catch the ferry to the Island and stay overnight. One of the motels went as low as $15.95 a night.”
TxDOT also wrote contracts with several charter captains to “pick up folks at various spots on the Island an take them back and forth to visit family, take care of shopping or what have you,” she said.
Houston-based Williams Bros. Construction completed the $4 million emergency repair a month ahead of schedule and also constructed the temporary ferry landings. The project ended up winning international awards, Bates said.
Two years after its reopening the Queen Isabella Causeway was renamed the Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge in honor of the eight people who died in the tragedy. It reopened on Nov. 21, 2001. Gov. Rick Perry cut the ceremonial ribbon and there was a brief celebration at the South Padre Island Convention Centre.
Bates said leading up to the reopening there was fear that the new bridge wouldn’t be safe, but she couldn’t help but notice driving back that the bridge was full of cars. The ferries quickly shut down for lack of ridership.
“Today, the bridge bears a scar, you can see where it has been repaired. … the bridge bears a scar, much like our communities. … Regardless of how you felt about one community or the other, we were in this together. For economic reasons it was important that this link be restored. Having that bridge down changed our revenue streams. Individuals that had jobs got laid off. Hotels and restaurants started having to lay people off,” Bates said.
The collapse hurt the economies of the Island and Port Isabel. The governor’s office estimated that 5,600 employees and nearly 2,400 businesses were affected. The economic impact was estimated at $45 million to $55 million had the causeway remained closed until Dec. 23, as originally planned.