The View from Up Close on South Padre Island, Texas
A visit to South Padre Island, TX may leave you rubbing your eyes and looking again. A quick once over reveals miles of golden beaches, palm trees waving gently in the breeze, and the warm waters of the Gulf fanning gently over the sand. The place is not crowded. It’s not overdeveloped. And it’s relatively inexpensive. Wait, it gets better.
South Padre Island has a population of just 2,752. The median price for a home there is a modest $304,400. Compared to Naples, Florida on the other side of the Gulf, the cost of living is about half. For all practical purposes, South Padre Island looks like an undiscovered gem, a middle-American paradise just ready to burst into bloom. So, why isn’t everyone flocking there?
The Devil in the Details
South Padre Island has a few shortcomings that don’t sharpen into focus until you look a little closer. We found this out first hand when we booked a room at the Isla Grande Beach Resort for the low, low price of $104 a night. The pictures on the website showed a full-service resort with an inviting looking swimming pool complete with waterfalls and cabanas, multiple onsite bars and restaurants, and beach access. In fact, the place does photograph well. I took my own photos, and based on them I would book again, if I didn’t know better.
The devil is in the details. The room we got for $104 was rundown and ratty. Paint was peeling from the door frame, the sliding glass doors were threatening to fall of the tracks, and the carpeting had seen better days. It looked very much like the kind of room drunken college students trash during Spring Break, which, I guess, was the point. The cheap rooms at Isla Grande Beach Resort are aimed directly at the Spring Break demographic, which is South Padre Island’s biggest economic driver.
The View Through Beer Goggles
In 2018 South Padre Island was named the second most violent city in Texas. The locals were stunned. How could that be? The town has less than 3,000 year-round residents. Of course, during the month of March 50,000 rowdy college students descend on the place bringing with them an annual spike in rapes, thefts and assaults, which, when entered into the equation against the small local population, lifts the per capita crime rate into the stratosphere. Dallas, Austin and San Antonio move over.
However, unlike other popular spring break destinations, most notably Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where year-round residents have tried to put a lid on the revelry, South Padre Island isn’t about to simmer things down. Instead, it caters to the mayhem. Dumpy hotel rooms, chintzy souvenir shops and noisy beachside bars abound. And while that may look great through the beer goggles of a twenty-one-year-old letting loose on Spring Break, it looks pretty seedy to other visitors the rest of the year.
The Leaning Tower of South Padre Island
It’s not as if South Padre Island hasn’t made a play for South Florida-style respectability. I’m sure it would love to become another retirement mecca like the cities of south Florida. To that end, in April 2006 construction began on a 31-story luxury high-rise that promised to usher in a new era for the island. Ocean Tower was to have 147 residential units, a gym, a swimming pool, a spa, and a media room. Its sales brochures advertised stunning Gulfside views and spoke of sparkling amenities. It was to have been the tallest building in the Rio Grande Valley. By May 2008 the 445-foot frame was complete, the first floors were filled in, and a number of units had been sold. Then the building began to tip over.
The skyscraper’s core had sunk more than 14 inches into the soft clay soil. Pier supports began to buckle. Beams cracked. Concrete fissured. The building was labelled “The Leaning Tower of South Padre Island”. The developers brought in emergency engineers to see if it could be salvaged, but it couldn’t.
On December 13th, 2009 Ocean Tower was demolished, earning the dubious distinction of becoming the tallest and largest reinforced concrete structure ever imploded. The debacle derailed South Padre Island’s aspirations to become a residential magnet like south Florida. Nothing remotely like it has been attempted since.
South Padre Island is out-of-the-way. The nearest large city is San Antonio, 300 miles away. To get to SPI from anywhere with a population of more than 350,000 requires at least a four-and-a-half-hour drive. That makes it problematic as a weekend getaway for weary city dwellers.
What’s more, to reach the island from the mainland you have to cross the two-and-a-half-mile-long Queen Isabella Causeway, the second longest bridge in Texas. The bridge, which was built in 1974, has seen more than its fair share of tragedy. In 1996 a small four-seat aircraft collided with it and exploded, killing two. In 2001 a barge collided with it, causing the roadway to collapse. Eight motorists plunged to their deaths.
But even if just crossing the causeway wasn’t more perilous than it ought to be, living on South Padre Island can be hazardous for another reason. The island sits in the pathway of one of the most active hurricane corridors in North America.
Since 1861, sixty-four hurricanes have struck the Texas coast. South Padre Island accounts for twelve of those. On average South Padre Island is brushed or struck by a hurricane every three to four years. No matter how you slice it, that’s a lot of hurricanes.
The most devastating storm to hit South Padre Island was Hurricane Beulah in 1967. A Category 3 hurricane, Beulah pushed a twenty-foot storm surge over South Padre Island and slammed the town with 136 miles per hour winds. The state of Texas suffered $217 million in damages and fifteen fatalities as a result.
In more recent times, Hurricane Dolly struck South Padre Island in 2008 packing winds of 85 miles per hour. The storm surged flowed eastward from the Laguna Madre, inundating the bay side of the island with four feet of water. In 2017 Hurricane Harvey swirled by causing $125 billion in damages. Most recently, in July 2020, South Padre Island was struck by Hurricane Hanna, a Category 1 hurricane, ripping roofs from homes and causing widespread flooding.
The View from Up Close on South Padre Island
Unlike South Florida, where hurricanes brewing in the mid-Atlantic either have to make a short trek north to strike the east coast or hook around the bottom of the peninsula to strike the west coast, hurricanes on a beeline for Texas come barreling straight across the gulf, increasing in strength as they approach. The potential for damage is high, which means the cost of disaster insurance is prohibitive for many homeowners. Living on South Padre Island is expensive, even though the base cost of living is reasonable.
Taken altogether, South Padre Island has a few shortcomings that prevent it from blossoming into the middle-American paradise it appears destined to be. Unless developers can construct hurricane-proof residences that ensure sound long-term investments for homeowners, it’s unlikely the island will become a retirement mecca like south Florida. That means it will remain shackled to an economy dependent on the arrival of a horde of drunken college students each March, which means it will continue to be a little rough around the edges. You won’t see it until you get up close, but by then you’re already there.
Previous Stop on the Odyssey: Galveston, TX
Next Stop on the Odyssey: Mission, TX
My American Odyssey Route Map
“Major Hurricane Beulah – September 20th 1967,” National Weather Service, acquired November 6th, 2021, Website
“Padre Island’s History with Tropical Systems”, HurricaneCity.com, acquired November 6th, 2021, Website
Post, Nadine M. “Faulty Tower’s Implosion Will Set New Height Record,” Engineering News-Record, 25 November 2009, Website
Sabawi, Fares. “Somber ceremony marks 20th anniversary of Queen Isabella Causeway collapse near South Padre Island,” KSAT.com, 14 September 2021, Website
“South Padre Island, Texas: Cost of Living,” Best Places, acquired November 6th, 2021, Website
“SPI Considered second most violent city in Texas, Here’s why locals and visitors don’t believe it,” ValleyCentral.com, 2 October 2018, Website
Gulls on the beach at dawn, Malcolm Logan
Isla Grande Beach Resort, Malcolm Logan
Spring Break Crowds, Ashlee Stone
Ocean Towers, Onthebeachspi
Waves on the sand, Malcolm Logan
View from the causeway, Malcolm Logan
Causeway collapse, Valerie D. Bates
Hurricane Dolly, Reuters
Collapsed seawall, Hurricane Alan, ResearchGate
Couple on the beach at sunrise, Malcolm Logan