Willacy County set to open new storm shelter


Staff Writer

RAYMONDVILLE — It stands like an armored bunker, built to withstand 200-mph hurricane winds.

After about eight years of planning and setbacks, Willacy County is opening its $1.6 million storm shelter.

The 8,000-square-foot shelter is located at the Willacy County Housing Authority, where its secondary purpose will include housing the agency’s offices at 10804 Business 77, Executive Director Jaime Serna said yesterday.

The so-called “safe room” was funded through a $1.2 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and $405,250 in county money, Becky Saenz, an assistant county auditor, said.

Saenz said the county tapped money the wind farms pay in lieu of property taxes to fund its share of the project.

“It’s been a long time coming and I’m glad it’s finally here,” Sheriff Larry Spence said. “It’s good to have a place like that. I’m sure we’ll put it to good use.”

In the event of a hurricane, the so-called “refuge of last resort” will house residents who do not evacuate as ordered, Frank Torres, the county’s emergency management coordinator, said.

“For those who can’t evacuate, they can stay there to weather out the storm,” Raymondville Mayor Gilbert Gonzales said. “I’m glad there’s a new solid structure sufficient to withstand 200-mph winds.”

County Judge Aurelio Guerra could not be reached for comment.

In the Rio Grande Valley, FEMA has helped cities including La Feria, Los Fresnos and Brownsville fund similar storm shelters.

In Willacy County, Guerra’s administration struggled to “salvage” the project following setbacks including a financial crisis stemming from the 2015 closure of the Willacy County Correctional Center, which slashed a third of the county’s $8.1 million general fund budget.

How we got here

In 2012, past County Judge John F. Gonzales Jr.’s administration began planning the project as a partnership with the Raymondville school district.

At that time, the proposed $2.4 million project called for a 20,000-square-foot domed storm shelter to be built near the district’s main offices off South Tenth Street.

As part of that project, the shelter’s secondary purpose included serving as a gymnasium housing the area’s first Boys and Girls Club.

Months later, the county downscaled the project to range from 8,000 to 12,000 square feet.

By 2015, the project was scaled back to 8,000 square feet.

Later that year, Guerra’s administration moved the project’s site to the housing authority at 10804 Business 77, just outside Raymondville’s city limits.