As pandemic raged, effects were profound in Valley

By RICK KELLEY
Staff Writer

HARLINGEN — As years go, 2020 will look best in the rear-view mirror.

This has been a year dominated by COVID-19, bringing family tragedies, business lockdowns, shutdowns and closings, and worker layoffs piling up month after month.

The pandemic and  governmental reaction to it led to travel curfews forbidding overnight movement for periods of time, as well as creating a new masked society in hopes of, if not stopping, at least blunting the virus’ spread.

Sales tax collections by cities were way off, as consumers stayed home and away from local stores. But it also led to a surge in e-commerce, or buying online, which boosted air cargo, helping Valley International Airport weather the cratering of its passenger traffic.

The year also gave us Saharan dust storms and a hurricane, with Hurricane Hanna bringing us yet another bout of major flooding for a third straight year.

This is 2020’s story.

COVID-19

As of Tuesday, the COVID-19 toll in Cameron County — at least the part of it that can be measured — stands at 29,321 positive cases with 25,180 people recovering.

Some 1,173 county residents have succumbed to the virus.

But numbers only tell a small part of the story of COVID’s impact, and omit the mourning by family members who lost loved ones, the fear and anxiety, and even the frustration which has accompanied the pandemic.

But the hope is the new vaccine — Valley Baptist Medical Center is serving as a regional distribution hub — will begin the long process of recovery for the population of the Rio Grande Valley, both medically and spiritually.

But as we will see, the insidious impact of COVID-19 went far beyond mere numbers in impacting the economy and the lives of Valley residents.

Census and more

Census 2020 was a big story this year, and for a region which has historically been undercounted in the best of times, COVID-19 proved to be an immensely complicating factor for the U.S. Census Bureau and local officials desperate for an accurate count.

After all, for the Rio Grande Valley over the next decade, quite literally hundreds of millions of dollars in money allocated to cities, towns and counties based on the census count are at stake.

We should begin receiving preliminary numbers on the population of cities in the Valley within a month or two.

The popular Rio Grande Birding Festival centered in Harlingen was another COVID-19 victim, as organizers canceled the festival due to uncertainty over whether the event would be allowed at all in November.

The consensus was to skip 2020, and hope for better in 2021.

Elsewhere, Valley weather was its usual schizophrenic self in 2020, with six months of drought ranging from abnormally dry to severe drought impacting the region and prompting worry from agricultural interests about the availability of irrigation water.

In June, as if to add insult to that parched climate, the region was hit by a series of choking Saharan dust storms, sweeping across the Atlantic Ocean in waves, to deposit fine silicates from the African desert here in the United States.

The next month brought us Hurricane Hanna.

The Category 1 storm made landfall in the Port Mansfield area on July 24 — dropping 14 inches of rain there — and then moved slowly up the Rio Grande Valley over the next few days, leaving a soggy mess behind, but thankfully causing no deaths and few injuries.

In Harlingen, 10.64 inches of rain was recorded.

Along with Hanna’s rains came high winds, and Valley cotton and citrus crops were devastated, along with unharvested fields of grain sorghum.

On the good news side, top-quality oysters from mariculture operations were legalized in Texas in 2020, and these farmed fruits of the sea should be available sometime in the next year.

Water stories flow

Water was a recurring story theme in 2020, from the Gulf of Mexico west to Amistad and Falcon lakes.

The International Boundary and Water Commission, announced it had reached a settlement with Mexico on its water deficit which will bring it into compliance with the international treaty to keep the Rio Grande basin full.

And after six years of being mothballed, San Benito’s $17 million water plant resumed operation. It was shut down as a result of “malfunctions” in 2014.

In Harlingen, city officials held a ceremonial groundbreaking for the 9th and 13th Street Drainage Improvement Project, a $2.8 million effort backed mostly by federal funds.

The city also was awarded $1.3 million to help fund storm sewer system improvements from the new Flood Infrastructure Fund. And then to top it off, the city won a grant of $5.6 million to mostly fund a detailed new analysis of floodwater runoff in the Rio Grande Valley.

Business and economy

The pandemic has had a severe impact on transportation in the Valley, and one needs to look no further than Valley International Airport to see its effects.

Valley International’s passenger enplanements for May were off a staggering 82 percent as the entire industry wrestled with an end to nearly all tourist traffic and most business traffic, too.

Since then VIA, like other airports in the Valley and elsewhere, have managed to claw some of that business back, reporting that passenger enplanements were down just 44 percent in October year-over-year.

The COVID-19 impact on business, particularly locally owned small businesses, has been perhaps even more catastrophic.

Many retailers are just hanging on, and restaurants have suffered as well, with closures and limited seating options. Restaurants and cafes lacking take-out operations had few options to turn to keep cash registers ringing.

Many of them haven’t made it.

But some government agencies tried to help. The Harlingen Economic Development Corp. initiated the Harlingen HELP for Small Business program with $1 million in funding to offer zero-interest loans of up to  $10,000 to qualifying small businesses.

About $500,000 went out to more than 50 city businesses.

Late in the year, there was the news that TaskUs, a business services firm based in new Braunfels, would be setting up an office in Harlingen. Unlike a lot of businesses locating here, the pay scale at TaskUs is a welcome $15 to $19 an hour for hourly workers.

The vote

Early voting in the Valley set records for the Nov. 3 elections.

Among local races, San Benito voters swept in new leadership, with former city commissioner Rick Guerra defeated former mayor Celeste Sanchez in the race to become the city’s new mayor in a runoff election.

Incumbent Mayor Ben Gomez, who defeated Sanchez three years ago, fell short of making the runoff and will end his term.

rkelley@valleystar.com