This past week was nothing like Brownsville residents have seen in decades. With some losing power for four days straight, others running out of gasoline and unable to find an open gas station, the week was “chaos,” as Executive Director Victor Maldonado at the Ozanam Center describes it.
Temperatures in Brownsville this past week reached a low of 22 degrees about sunrise on Monday, according to preliminary figures from the National Weather Service office in Brownsville.
The city had not seen temperatures that low since 1989, when temps reached a low of 16 degrees on Dec. 23 and 18 degrees on Dec. 24 of that year, NWS reported.
The Ozanam Center was the only 24-hour warming center available throughout the city for residents who needed a place to stay out of the cold after being without electricity for days. The City of Brownsville had announced on Wednesday the opening of a 24-hour warming center at the Sports Park only to change the hours of operations a day later.
“It has been chaos,” Maldonado said during an interview at the Ozanam Center. There, more than 100 residents were warming up inside, charging cell phones and having free hot meals. “We started Monday as a normal week, but by Tuesday we were already getting full, and then we got a big bus from [CBP] that arrived with 37 families, and each family consisted of about three individuals.”
In regard to the warming centers by the City of Brownsville, Brownsville City Manager Noel Bernal said during a phone interview on Thursday evening that to make this decision they used the data they collected from BPUB throughout the day about the outages and the areas.
“We used the data that we had as of today, and we’ve broken up into districts, and geographically, and we ended up expanding services to reflect what the outage information reflected,” Bernal said.
“We actually expanded the total number of hours, and we actually have a lot more staff that we’ve allocated to these different facilities. Because our data showed what districts had more outages where we needed to have more presence.”
Maldonado said those using the Ozanam Center were a mix of Brownsville residents who lost power, Brownsville homeless population and asylum seekers who due to the extreme weather conditions could not leave the city to meet their sponsors since bus routes and flights were canceled.
Regularly, before COVID, the Ozanam Center can house more than 200 individuals, but due to the pandemic they had to reduce capacity to half, Maldonado said. He added every night this week, there has been about 100 to 116 individuals spending the night there due to the extreme weather conditions.
“It’s a mixture of asylum seekers and individuals from the community that don’t have electricity and they ended up or were brought in by BPD or local hospitals,” he said. “Right now, we can house up to 230 individuals but because of COVID, we had to go half of the amount that we can serve.”
Even though the center was also part of the rotating outages the city experienced, Maldonado said residents didn’t feel cold at night because of the high number of individuals concentrated in the dorms.
A young woman who was using the shelter with her two infant daughters, said the dorm felt “calientito” and neither she nor her daughters were cold. She said even though she had no place to go, she felt welcomed and thankful to be receiving three hot meals a day and a place to stay.
“We’ve been good here for the past two days, thank God,” she said while sitting on her bed with her two daughters. “We feel welcomed and are grateful.”