WESLACO — Gov. Greg Abbott pledged more state support for recovery efforts in the Rio Grande Valley related to Hurricane Hanna and in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic after touring the area and meeting with local leaders in the Mid-Valley on Tuesday.
Abbott said he viewed hurricane damage in the Valley in the air and on the ground, commenting on agricultural damage, property damage and ongoing power outages.
He said he issued a waiver on certain regulations related to commercial trucking in the state meant to address those power outages Tuesday afternoon.
“These suspensions will allow commercial drivers to more quickly deliver supplies, specifically electric power supplies, to communities in the Rio Grande Valley and the Coastal Bend impacted by Hurricane Hanna,” he said.
Abbott said that much of the conversation he had with local leadership Tuesday focused on preventing catastrophic flooding that’s become an annual event in the Rio Grande Valley. He stressed that effective solutions for the Valley’s drainage problems wouldn’t happen over night.
“When you start delivering solutions that involve containment or movement of water, it takes typically years for those projects to be completed,” he said.
Many of the governor’s announcements Tuesday related to pandemic aid headed to the Valley, including a plan to convert the McAllen Convention Center into a healthcare facility that can care for up to 250 COVID-19 patients. He says it’s opening later this week and will be supplied with hospital beds, medical equipment and medical staff.
“You got to hand it to the local leaders. It’s an enormous challenge for any local leader to step up and be able to address the challenges that come along with a hurricane. It’s even more challenging when you couple that with a pandemic. Our biggest concern with the hurricane was the challenge that it posed because of the pandemic, especially in the Rio Grande Valley,” he said.
Other pandemic aid the governor announced included medical supplies and medical professionals being sent south.
He said teams of medical professionals were being sent to Edinburg and Harlingen to aid hospitals there.
Abbott also announced locations for recovering COVID-19 patients, two of which will be in Pharr and Harlingen. Starr County will likely receive another one, he said.
“If there’s one thing that I want to emphasize to everybody in the entire Rio Grande Valley, it is this: This hurricane has not eliminated COVID-19. COVID-19 still exists in the Rio Grande Valley,” he said.
Chief of the Texas Division of Emergency management Nim Kidd said that there are over 6,100 contract nurses and doctors in the state already, some of whom are Department of Defense and Health and Human Services staff.
“More will be coming as needed…” he said, indicating that those personnel would be shifted around to meet staffing demands as necessary.
Abbott didn’t say whether or not a lockdown or shelter-in-place order might be in the future at the press conference, but did say that he believed mask requirements and closing bars had reduced cases in other parts of Texas.
“If you look at the numbers, primarily in the large counties across the state of Texas, you see that several weeks after those orders went into effect there began to be a decline in the number of people testing positive as well as a decline in the number of hospitalizations…” he said. “We are seeing positive results from the executive order that I put into place that did not force people into poverty by forcing them to lose their job, lose their income, lose their ability to earn the paycheck they need to pay their bills and put food on the table.”
Abbott said COVID-19 transmission would likely remain a problem even if there was a lockdown.
“We are seeing transmission of people who are in families who have gathered together at home,” he said.
Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez, along with the judges of Cameron and Starr counties, thanked the governor and called for a round of applause for the alternative care facilities Abbott announced.
“Let me tell you, the hospital groups and municipalities in the county have been talking about these alternative care facilities which are extremely needed to increase the capacity of the hospitals,” he said. “We have close to 2,000 rooms in our hospitals, and more than half of those rooms are occupied by COVID-positive patients…”
U.S. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, who has called for a lockdown and frequently been at odds with Abbott over his pandemic response, thanked the governor for the pandemic response efforts in a statement.
“While it’s been some time since our hospitals reached capacity, I am thankful that Governor Abbott is acting & allocating additional resources to transition the McAllen Convention Center to a health care facility. This equipment and personnel will help our overwhelmed health systems save lives and provide support in our post-hurricane response,” he wrote. “It is my hope that we can work together and continue to provide critical aid for the people of South Texas during this time. I will never stop being a loud voice to assure that the needs of South Texans continue to be a priority.”
Not everyone at Tuesday’s meeting was pleased with the governor. A small group of protesters gathered Tuesday outside the Texas Department of Public Safety Headquarters in Weslaco, where Abbott held the conference, to criticize him for his pandemic policies, among other things.
“Close the state before it’s too late,” the protesters chanted. Later they just chanted “shame.”
Quetzal Toren of Alamo was one of those protesters calling for the governor to implement a lockdown.
“It should be mandatory at this point, only essential businesses should be open,” she said.
Toren also said that the state’s policies and Abbott’s attitudes made her feel like the Valley had been abandoned by the state’s chief executive.
Toren, whose uncle was left without power because of the hurricane, also called for the governor to take action in response to Hurricane Hanna but didn’t have any specific action in mind Tuesday.
“I’m not sure, I don’t know how to answer these questions right now,” Toren said.