Residents brave the cold at home

Officials warn of deadly risks of space heaters, ovens ; low turnout at shelters

HARLINGEN — Many residents are counting on space heaters and ovens to try to warm up their families, braving near-record cold in old wood-frame homes almost as frosty as the deep-freeze outdoors.

Meanwhile, few residents are taking cover in shelters such as Harlingen’s Loaves and Fishes.

“It’s going to be hard the next couple of days,” David Luna, executive director of the area’s Red Cross office, said Monday as temperatures hovered in the 20s. “It is historic — it’s very rare we get weather like this in the Valley.”

Across the Rio Grande Valley, many homes and trailers weren’t built to keep out the bitter cold.

“My heart goes out to them,” San Benito Mayor Rick Guerra said. “We don’t experience this type of cold in the Valley — with lows that long.”

“The houses are not well insulated. A lot of the older homes — it costs money to insulate. It’s colder when houses are on concrete pilings because the air comes inside the house. Whatever it is outside, it’s two or three degrees warmer inside. That’s what these people have to fight,” he said.

At the San Benito Food Pantry, residents are calling for help, Forest Walker, the organization’s president, said.

“They’re calling us for blankets,” she said, adding she’s handed out about 300 blankets. “They want to know if we’ve got space heaters.”

Deadly risks

Officials are warning residents the use of space heaters and ovens pose deadly risks.

“What I worry about in cold weather is people using space heaters or ovens because it’s a sad story when fire burns everything down,” Bill Reagan, Loaves and Fishes’ executive director.

Luna warned of overloaded space heaters short-circuiting.

“There is danger,” he said. “The main concern is people using those portable heaters that can get overheated, cause a short and start a fire.”

Shelter beds empty

Despite the near-record cold, few residents are taking cover at shelters.

“It’s a scary situation — nobody wants to have to leave their home,” Irma Garza, Harlingen’s spokeswoman, said. “They’re afraid someone could break in. You feel comfortable in your home. Some people have pets. Some people may not have rides. And we’re dealing with COVID as well.”

At Loaves and Fishes, 25 people including a family of four stayed in its shelter as temperatures plunged Sunday night, Melissa Gutierrez, the agency’s office manager, said of the 66-bed shelter.

“I was surprised we didn’t get more families,” she said. “The majority probably don’t have (central heating). They don’t have insulation to keep warm in their homes.”

At the shelter, Reagan’s set up an area just to help residents warm up.

“We have a special place set up where we put cots out for people who want to come to stay warm,” he said.

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