BY DINA AREVALO | STAFF WRITER
Hurricane Hanna lumbered ashore just north of Port Mansfield Saturday evening, wreaking slow havoc as its rainbands stretched into the Rio Grande Valley.
The storm came ashore, bringing with it the threat of severe flooding just as local officials had been struggling to deal with a flood of critically ill COVID-19 patients, who have overwhelmed the region’s 12 hospitals and limited intensive care units.
As deaths from the virus have skyrocketed in recent weeks, the region’s mortuaries and funeral homes have also become overwhelmed.
Then came the storm.
“Emotionally, you have to deal with the reality of it,” Precinct 1 Hidalgo County Commissioner David Fuentes said of the deaths Friday, while also preparing for what many feared would be a torrential downpour in a historically flood-prone region. “Then you realize it’s not just numbers on paper. It’s not just statistics, you know, it’s the reality of what the people are going through and losing loved ones.”
According to the National Hurricane Center (NHC), Hanna made landfall at 5 p.m. Saturday as a Category 1 hurricane. The eye of the storm came ashore on North Padre Island in Kenedy County just 15 miles north of Port Mansfield.
The NHC then reported Hanna made a second landfall in the same area at 6:15 p.m.
At the time of both landfalls, weather observation stations recorded sustained winds of 90 mph within the eyewall as the storm continued to move west-southwest at 8 mph, the NHC reported.
Forecasters expected the storm to follow a west-southwesterly track over the Valley’s four counties into the overnight hours Saturday, with heavy rain and flooding expected.
Port Mansfield began feeling the effects of the storm hours before the eyewall came ashore. Strong winds ripped roofs off of buildings and scattered debris along roads, according to the National Weather Service in Brownsville.
As the storm moved inland, residents in rural Willacy County — including San Perlita and Raymondville — began experiencing heavy rainfall and strong winds which knocked down trees and electrical wires.
In a plea posted to Facebook, Place 1 Raymondville City Commissioner Joel Garcia urged residents to stay off the roads as first responders were struggling to deal with the storm debris.
“There’s too many people driving around and it’s becoming a big concern for our first responders,” Garcia wrote.
Elsewhere in the Valley, residents spent the morning in last-minute efforts to fill sandbags, while officials scrambled to open shelters under the added roadblock of offering emergency temporary shelter in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To that end, officials in Mercedes dedicated the Mercedes Safe Dome, 1202 N. Vermont St., specifically for the use of COVID-19 individuals and families, or those who have been exposed to the virus. The city added that shelter staff would be in “proper safety gear,” and that “other safety measures shall be employed to make the facility and families as safe as possible.”
Residents who haven’t tested positive for COVID-19 and who were seeking shelter in the Queen City were asked to go to Chacon Middle School, 801 S. Mile 1 East Road.
Meanwhile, officials in Weslaco had to think fast after a vehicle struck an electrical pole, knocking out power to a shelter that had been opened at the Weslaco High School gym.
That shelter was ultimately moved to the Palm Aire Hotel at 415 S. International Blvd. in Weslaco.
Other shelters were opened in La Joya, Pharr and McAllen.
Masks are required at all shelters and social distancing guidelines will be followed. Residents with COVID-19 will not be turned away, officials said, though they are asked to bring medical documentation about their diagnosis.
La Joya residents may seek shelter at the La Joya Youth Center gym at 604 Salomon Chapa Dr. Those who need assistance getting to the shelter may call (956) 400-6621, (956) 600-1822 or (956) 400-6147.
Pharr residents can seek shelter at the Pharr Development and Research Center, 850 W. Dicker Road. They must bring proof of residency, as well as supplies needed for comfort, including food, medication, blankets and pillows.
In McAllen, the Salvation Army at 1600 N. 23rd St. and the McAllen Respite Center, 111 S. 15th St., are open to those needing emergency shelter.
In anticipation of the heavy rainfall that was expected to fall overnight, Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez issued a local state of disaster for the county. Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina issued a similar order for his city.
In a letter describing the life-threatening nature of the storm, Cortez called upon Gov. Greg Abbott to declare a state disaster, which the governor obliged less than two hours later.
Abbott, in turn, called on President Donald Trump to authorize federal support.
“As Hurricane Hanna approaches, the Lone Star State is taking swift action to support the communities in the path of the storm,” Abbott said via a news release Saturday. “We are closely monitoring the situation and working with local officials to help ensure they have the resources they need to keep Texans safe.”
Along with the Valley’s four counties, the governor’s disaster declaration affects 28 counties in the ranchlands and the Coastal Bend, and extends as far north as Houston’s Harris County.
The declaration takes effect immediately and activates numerous resources from the Texas Department of Emergency Management, including search and rescue crews with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas A&M Engineering and Extension Service, the Texas Military Department and the Department of Public Safety.
Additionally, crews from the Texas A&M Forest Service have been staged to help with debris removal after the storm, and officials with the Department of State Health Services stand by to assist with emergent medical needs, the release states.
“I urge Texans in the region to take all necessary precautions and follow the guidance of local officials. I ask our fellow Texans to keep those communities in their prayers as they brace for this storm,” Abbott said.