Amid pandemic, Valley officials also urge hurricane prep

With hurricane season set to begin June 1, emergency managers around the Rio Grande Valley are urging residents to prepare for the possibility of dealing with a weather disaster on top of the ongoing COVID-19 medical disaster.

Officials from Hidalgo and Cameron counties say that though the pandemic has presented new challenges in disaster response, it hasn’t prevented them from getting ready for the upcoming season, nor should residents let it prevent them from making preparations of their own.

“It’s impacted us a little, but we — at the onset of all this COVID-19 situation — … had a conference call with all of our precincts,” Hidalgo County Emergency Management Coordinator Ricardo Saldaña said via phone Friday.

“We need to prepare. We need to make sure that everything’s functional … start mitigating what needs to be mitigated to make sure that if we get these rains, should we get a hurricane, we’re already ready to go,” he said.

In Cameron County, Emergency Management Coordinator Tom Hushen said preparations there continue apace, as well.

“We’re still doing currently what we do every year, which is making sure our pumps are up and running, making sure that our plans are in place,” Hushen said Thursday.

For county and city officials, being ready to go means making sure drains and ditches are clear. But it also means making those preparations while continuing forward at full speed in what has now become a months-long response to the pandemic.

“We’ve been dealing with COVID-19 response and we still are at 100%, a hundred mile an hour response on the COVID side, but we also have triggers and those dates where we start talking about hurricane season,” said Weslaco Emergency Management Coordinate Antonio Lopez on Thursday.

Lopez, who also serves as fire chief for the city, said Weslaco began prepping for hurricane season in January.

Being prepared also means officials worked on proposed timelines in the event a mandatory evacuation needs to be ordered, as well as coordinating disaster response efforts in the new era of social distancing.

Mandatory evacuation orders could result in some residents needing public assistance to leave the Valley safely. Smaller, isolated evacuations could require displaced residents to spend several days in local emergency shelters.

Planning for both scenarios requires retooling in light of guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about maintaining social distancing to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Officials say they have already begun adjusting their shelter and evacuation plans, but that the preservation of life is paramount.

“The rescue comes first,” Hushen said. “So (if) we have people that are trapped in a home and need to be rescued, we’re gonna put as many as we can to get them out of harm’s way.”

Saldaña echoed that sentiment when speaking of the possibility of evacuating large numbers of people via bus.

“(If) we’re not gonna be able to do the social distancing, we will take every necessary precaution to fulfill the safety of those citizens should they have to be relocated,” Saldaña said.

Both counties maintain agreements with the state, which provides charter bus fleets to facilitate the evacuation of residents who have no safe transportation of their own.

Evacuations out of the region typically only occur with severe hurricanes — Category 4 or 5 storms, and occasionally, Category 3 storms, Hushen said.

Though tropical weather systems don’t always require regional evacuation, isolated flooding can cause the temporary displacement of individual communities.

In June 2018 and June 2019, heavy rainstorms displaced dozens of families in the Weslaco and Mercedes area. Many of those families ended up at the First Baptist Church of Weslaco, whom the city partners with to provide temporary shelter services.

In the event a hurricane causes similar localized displacement of residents, the church is equipped to shelter them again, this time with social distancing, Lopez said.

“That one we’ve been thinking about since the first time when they said, you know, social distancing. You can’t have so many people in a certain area,” he said.

If the number of evacuees exceeds the reduced capacity at the church, the city is prepared to open up secondary shelter locations, such as facilities at local schools, Lopez said.

“We have to have that Plan B, Place C for these types of times,” he added.

Similarly, county officials have met with their partners at the American Red Cross to address the reduction of shelter space due to social distancing.

“They have already created a plan on how they’re going to take the approach with social distancing, whether it be in a public setting, or in another alternative site that they may have to utilize,” Saldaña said.

As for what the public can do to prepare, officials said local residents need to give themselves more time. Evacuations could take longer because of social distancing. Supplies may be scarce as the pandemic continues.

“I think our residents had a shock with what they saw with COVID-19 — of our shelves being empty, our groceries being empty,” Saldaña said.

But the shock of the pandemic may have had a silver lining. “A lot of people have learned a lot of lessons with what’s been going on with Covid,” said Hushen, Cameron County’s EMC.

“When they can see that a moment’s notice, stores can be closed, businesses can be closed, that’s basically what’s gonna happen during a storm. … And I think this is going to help people understand how much, how important preparedness is,” he said.

In Weslaco, Lopez agreed, imploring residents to be proactive in preparing, rather than relying on help from local or state government.

“The disaster starts where we stand. … What you can do is protect yourself where you stand,” Lopez said.