As local officials continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic that has afflicted not just their constituents, but their staffs as well, the virus has also impacted storm preparations just as Tropical Storm Hanna lumbers toward the Texas coast.
Not only has the virus sickened county and municipal workers, reducing the number of staff available to handle maintenance and preparation issues, but it has also changed the way emergency management coordinators have had to think about post-disaster emergency response.
Where will COVID-19 positive patients go if they are displaced from their homes by flooding? What about those recovering patients who are on at-home oxygen therapy? These and more are questions local leaders have been grappling with for months.
“It’s been really tough,” Precinct 4 Hidalgo County Commissioner Ellie Torres said Friday afternoon.
“I’ve been functioning, since about I would say early June to the present, I’ve been functioning with about 75% of my staff,” Torres said. The remaining 25% have been battling the virus or awaiting test results, she said.
Despite that, Precinct 4 crews have remained diligent in preparing drainage infrastructure in the months leading up to hurricane season, Torres said. Too, officials have been encouraging neighborhood and colonia cleanup efforts to help keep ditches clear.
The Precinct 1 office hasn’t been spared from the virus, either. Commissioner David Fuentes said half of his staff has been sent home due to COVID-19 infections — the majority of those within his administration, including his chief of staff, David Suarez.
Suarez, who also serves as the Weslaco mayor, announced recently that he and two Weslaco city commissioners had tested positive for the virus.
Despite the massive reduction in available staff, Fuentes said the remainder of his crew has been hard at work making preparations similar to Precinct 4 — cleaning out ditches, stationing water pumps near the spillway, distributing sandbags to local residents and readying road response crews.
“We’ve been preparing for this as if it’s going to be a major storm,” Fuentes said.
And a major storm it may well be.
Meteorologists with the National Weather Service in Brownsville announced via a Facebook Live video Friday that Hanna is expected to be a Category 1 hurricane by the time it makes landfall Saturday somewhere between Baffin Bay and Corpus Christi.
And though the center mass of the storm is expected to make landfall north of the Rio Grande Valley, the system is expected to take a southwesterly turn as it moves inland, inundating large swaths of the region with heavy rainfall.
“We’re expecting rainfall amounts (between) 4 to 8 inches of rain, and locally up to 12 inches,” one meteorologist said. “That could result in devastating flooding,” he added.
For Fuentes, whose Mid-Valley cities saw devastating flooding after the June 2018 and 2019 storms dumped more than a dozen inches of rain, similar predictions for Hanna’s potential rain totals are concerning.
Those twin June storms displaced numerous people throughout the Mid-Valley and the Delta region. In 2018 alone, hundreds of Weslaco residents were displaced from their homes and needed emergency temporary shelter.
But COVID-19 has changed how officials are planning to house evacuees should large numbers of residents be displaced again — especially if those residents are positive for the virus.
“Obviously, we’re working under much, much different circumstances where we’ll probably follow some CDC guidelines within those shelters,” Fuentes said. “There’s probably gonna be much less capacity and, hopefully, there’ll be some cities that will have some alternative shelters, or maybe multiple shelters.”
Indeed, shelter capacity will be significantly reduced. At the First Baptist Church in Weslaco, which partners with the city for emergency shelters, capacity will be slashed by as much as 75% due to the virus’ social distancing requirements, Weslaco Fire Chief Antonio “Tony” Lopez said.
Lopez also serves as the city’s emergency management coordinator.
As the number of COVID-positive people has skyrocketed since June, any severe flooding could require first responders to “triage” an evacuation, Lopez said.
“We’re gonna have to do triage, like triage we do out in the field for a major incident, a major car accident. We have to go in there and actually assess, okay, with the temperature checks and do some questions,” Lopez said.
He added that COVID-positive evacuees should tell first responders of their positive status and noted it is imperative they wear masks, especially if life-threatening conditions require rescues occur en masse, without the luxury of separating positive from non-positive people.
“During that moment — when we’re moving people from a life-safety issue, which is flooding at their home or in their area — at that point, life safety comes first because we have to make sure that we are able to safely rescue everybody from those locations,” Lopez said.
“In turn, that has to go hand in hand with facial coverings,” he said. CDC guidelines will also be enforced at emergency shelters.
No one, regardless of status, will be denied emergency shelter, Lopez said, even if that means officials have to consider segregating COVID-19 positive evacuees in separate shelter locations.
“The shelter will not be denied,” Lopez said, adding that emergency managers have been in communication with the American Red Cross to discuss those kinds of logistical concerns, including the possibility of using schools as alternative shelters.
But Lopez did have words of caution for those who are recovering from the virus via at-home oxygen therapy. He urges them to speak with their healthcare providers and their families or caregivers to discuss plans for potential disruptions to their oxygen supplies or the electricity needed to run the equipment.
“Now that’s a big population of citizens that are needing that support out in the field. … Those should probably be the first ones to have a plan of how they’re going to sustain their medical treatment and how are they going to be able to move themselves in case they’re gonna be displaced,” Lopez said.
Commissioner Torres urged residents to go over their preparations one last time — making sure they have nonperishable food, water and plans in place. “At this point, if they haven’t, this is the time to do it,” she said.
Fuentes, too, urged preparation and reminded residents “to be safe, to be very mindful about how dangerous standing water is.”
“Please stay home and try to stay out of this water,” he said.
For Lopez, dealing with two emergencies at once — a tropical weather system and a highly infectious disease — is something no one has done before, but it will serve as a learning experience, especially as another tropical weather system — Gonzalo — churns in the Gulf of Mexico behind Hanna.
“We’re not taking this lightly,” Lopez said, adding that state officials have already offered support.
“We’re not alone in this … we have the full backing of our other emergency managers from the county and also from the state of Texas,” Lopez said.