“I would be in the same boat as everyone I was photographing — looking for food, looking for power, looking for Wifi.”
Throughout last week, stories of Texas men, women, and children freezing to death, pipes bursting and homes flooding, apartment buildings burning and fire departments without water saturated headlines across the United States. As the unprecedented storm dumped snow and sent temperatures plunging into the 20s in the southernmost corner of the state, the Rio Grande Valley was particularly unequipped to deal with the onslaught of frigid weather and the catastrophe meltdown of the state’s electrical grid.
By this weekend, most Valley residents had access to some sort of heat. Much of the power was back on and water service in the border city of Brownsville, Texas was operating normally. Further north, Texans suffered outages and no running water even longer.
But the outages along the U.S./Mexico border, predominantly Hispanic communities filled with new immigrants and mixed-status families, signified something much larger. As the planet warms, communities already underfunded and simultaneously the subject of an exorbitant federal law enforcement presence, will bear the brunt of one crisis after another.
Journalism On Ice
At the Brownsville Herald, Valley Morning Star, and McAllen Monitor, reporters, photographers and videographers fanned out into their communities which have some of the highest poverty rates in the U.S. outside of Puerto Rico, knocking on doors and seeking to tell the story. However, they were not immune to the impact of the storm. They lost power too and had trouble sending photos to larger news organizations such as the Associated Press. Many of the newspapers in deep South Texas are A.P. affiliates.
Denise Cathey, a staff photographer at the Brownsville Herald who was sent out into the cold to report, returned late each night to a home with temperatures below freezing. “As journalists you’re used to being able to cover something and then go home,” she told the Indypendent.
“Your home does not reflect whatever you’ve seen and whatever you’ve been doing all day and you can shut the door,” Cathey added. “But, there was nothing like that. I would come home and my apartment would be 28 degrees and I would be freezing, and I would be in the same boat as everyone I was photographing — looking for food, looking for power, looking for Wifi.”
A Child’s Cry Heard Around The World
Meanwhile, a crisis was unfolding. In the camp across the river, a child screamed in pain Tuesday night from a tent where his mother held a water bottle to his feet, trying to warm him up. Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, posted the video on Twitter, where it drew outrage at the conditions from viewers across the world.
Asylum seekers huddled in tents, in winter coats provided with donations collected by local organizations. Last winter, when the camp was larger pre-pandemic, it was not uncommon to see children walking through cold weather in flip flops. Families on Thursday gathered in a tent for a church service, smiling for a photo, prepared for one last day of frigid temperatures. Volunteers reported that organizers in Matamoros had managed to find several heaters.
Asylum seekers waiting in Mexico under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, known as the “Remain in Mexico” program, reported trouble throughout the week with the UNHCR website where the Executive Office for Immigration Review is directing migrants to register to have their cases processed. On Monday, the telephone number provided to migrants in the camp was not working from either side of the border.
And amidst the chaos, the Biden administration has continued to expel people who cross the border under a CDC order, Title 42. Under Title 42, nearly 200,000 people were expelled at the southern border in 2020, according to Customs and Border Protection, a number that includes people who intended to seek asylum.
On Monday, certain vulnerable asylum seekers returned to Mexico under MPP in Matamoros began crossing into Brownsville, where advocates who have fought from the program’s start in January 2019 have helped coordinate to receive them and provide transport to shelters and sponsors. Others, who have been waiting for months and some even years, continue to wait for processing.
A Different Kind of Storm
This storm was different, Cathey said. The Rio Grande Valley has not often experienced extended freezes. Temperatures occasionally dip in the winter, but normally the weather warms up quickly. “To top it all off, you have a large section of the population that relies on public transport or the ability to walk places,” she noted.
“The places where you’re used to going to get supplies, propane, groceries — they’re either on a rotating blackout or they’re just out. You have no idea when they’re going to get power.”
The area quickly ran out of propane. Video posted through the week showed empty shelves at the local HEB grocery stores, which according to reports have begun to restock. At gas stations, the rolling outages meant that what little gasoline was left had to be used driving around to determine which station had power. No power also means no credit or debit cards, causing further problems for people trying to get food, water, and gas.
Residents flocked to warming centers set up across the Valley, braving COVID-19 exposure in an area that was devastated by the virus last year and that could easily see another surge.
Along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, the Valley’s residents witnessed what was likely the largest “single weather-related sea turtle stranding event in history,” the Brownsville Zoo wrote on social media. Valley Morning Star reporter Elsa Cavazos interviewed people who had lost heat and power taking to the beaches to rescue cold-stunned turtles on South Padre Island, taking them in cars and trucks by the thousands to a turtle refuge. Over 4,800 of turtles were brought in as of Friday, “with more coming in,” wrote the zoo.
By the weekend, the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office had warned the public that hotels in the area were price gouging. Local aid groups like Angry Tías and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley coordinated to receive asylum seekers being released by Customs and Border Protection amidst a lack of hotel rooms.
At the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, advocates and former detainees in touch with prisoners reported that the facility lost both power and water. One advocate who helps coordinate bail for incarcerated asylum seekers was out of power in the Laguna Vista area for four days. “It was area-wide,” she wrote over the weekend.
“But it was worse for [the detainees] since they didn’t have any warm clothes to put on, and apparently they were given only one bottle of drinking water a day. And just imagine the toilet situation there,” she added.
ICE would not confirm that PIDC lost power, writing on background that its facilities in Texas were “experiencing the effects of the winter storm affecting most of the state”.
“Some of our detention facilities, which house adults and children, are experiencing intermittent power outages as well as interruptions in water service. All facilities have back-up generator power,” the agency wrote, adding that it was providing “food, water, and heat” to all individuals in custody, though it did not share specifics.
Local jails reported experiencing intermittent power outages until Thursday. By then, warmer weather had returned to the Rio Grande Valley. Further north, freezing weather dragged on.
Even as the cold weather receded, other crises continued as usual. At the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s vaccine clinic on Saturday an undocumented man was denied the shot because of his citizenship status, according to a tweet posted by the man’s son.
Prompted by Latino USA reporter Reynaldo Leaños Jr., UTRGV confirmed that it did not follow the Texas Department of Health and Human Services vaccine guidelines and turned away eligible patients based on residency status.
By Sunday, the temperature in Brownsville was 77 degrees. “I’m angry so many people had to be so cold while others never lost power,” said an editor. “I felt truly guilty.”
A reporter added, “I want to complain, but I literally had friends in Austin letting snow melt over five days so they had water.”
On Facebook, residents shared advice on where to find the best generators, including ones to keep inside the home. One local journalist, whose mother in Matamoros, Mexico got power back days before her apartment complex in Brownsville, recommended obtaining a generator that can power a space heater, cell phone, and computer to those who asked.
“I’m sure this will happen again,” she said.
Erin Sheridan was the Indypendent’s Spring 2018 intern. She worked as a reporter at the Brownsville (Tx.) Herald from 2019-2020.
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