BY BERENICE GARCIA, DINA ARÈVALO AND MATT WILSON | STAFF WRITERS
Hurricane Hanna took its pound of flesh over the weekend and dispersed into a line of ominous colors on the radar rumbling off to the south, but the remnants of the system over the Rio Grande Valley are continuing to dump water over the region as Hidalgo County residents will be dealing with the aftermath of its first direct hit by a hurricane for the foreseeable future.
Water rescues were still underway Sunday and drainage systems in many parts of the Valley have reached capacity, meaning that flooding has been and remains a concern.
The Category 1 hurricane downed trees, wrecked homes, damaged cars and fences and property, but no deaths or serious injuries have been reported in the Valley yet.
Federal, state and local authorities began focusing on recovery efforts Sunday.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Sunday afternoon that disaster assistance has been made available to the state of Texas to supplement state and local recovery efforts in the areas affected by Hanna.
The funding is available to the state, eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for Category B emergency protective measures, a statement from FEMA read, and is limited to direct federal assistance and reimbursement for mass care including evacuation and shelter support at 75% federal funding.
The funding is available in 32 counties, including Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr and Willacy.
Gov. Greg Abbott announced Sunday afternoon that he had requested the federal support Saturday.
“I thank President Trump and our partners at FEMA for their quick response in granting this Federal Emergency Declaration,” the governor wrote in a news release. “We will continue to work with our federal and local partners as we assess the damage from Hurricane Hanna and may seek additional federal assistance as we continue to respond, recover, and rebuild our communities. I continue to urge Texans to heed the guidance from their local leaders and follow best practices to keep themselves and their loved ones safe as severe weather continues to move through our communities.”
Local leaders also began strategizing how to recover from the hurricane and prevent further chaos Sunday, many focusing on the flooding problem posed by drainage.
“The only problem is that our county drainage systems have reached capacity, which means that the water is hammering back to the city of Mission,” Mission Mayor Armando O’Caña said Sunday.
The city has 14 major pumps strategically placed throughout the city, the mayor said, and as residents continue to report flooding in homes, engineers will determine how to get the water to recede.
For a time, the city’s response efforts were mostly halted by the storm. At one point, O’Caña said the city had to stop sending out crews — except in response to “extreme 911 calls” — when winds exceeded 60 mph. But the break from heavy rain had given the city the opportunity to send out at least 80% of their staff. Their primary purpose is to ensure drainage and roads are cleared of debris.
Many of the individuals living in those flooded neighborhoods were evacuated by the city. O’Caña said city crews had performed over 50 evacuations in the previous 24 hours as of Sunday afternoon, all from different areas of Mission.
The evacuees are taken to the Parks and Recreation building, but the city is currently making arrangements with the Mission school district and the American Red Cross for long-term shelter, which is defined as shelter for more than one day.
Shelters throughout the county were soon filled to capacity, forcing one Edinburg family, including four children, to shelter in the Edinburg Police Department lobby, Chief Cesar Torres said.
Edinburg experienced the brunt of the storm, as the southwest eyewall of Hurricane Hanna passed directly above the city, inundating it with 10-15 inches of rain and lashing winds for approximately five hours overnight Saturday.
The onslaught knocked out power to all of the city’s facilities, including its emergency operations center, the central fire station and the police department. All of Edinburg’s facilities were operating on backup generator power as of 1 p.m. Sunday, when the city council convened an emergency meeting to discuss the storm’s fallout.
“We’re still in the response (mode),” Edinburg City Manager Ron Guerra said. “We’ve not really been doing recovery. We’re doing a lot of current rescues,” he said.
Though the winds began to die down around 3 a.m. Sunday morning, rain continued to pelt the city and drainage infrastructure continued to fill with water not just from Edinburg, but from neighboring McAllen, Mission and Peñitas, who all share county drainage systems with Edinburg, Fire Chief Shawn Snider explained.
“As you build up ahead of water flow and ditches fill up to their tops, then all that water is in competition as Edinburg’s water continues to flow into that ditch,” Snider said, adding that water is receding slowly, hampering the city’s ability to begin pumping water out of neighborhoods.
The police department suffered significant roof damage, Torres added. The department’s electronic dispatching system also went down, wiping out their ability to record calls for service and forcing staffers to resort to manual operations.
Issues were further exacerbated when various city departments were temporarily out of communication with each other due to differing radio systems and partial cell network outages.
That all came as the police department fielded some 250 calls for service overnight, including multiple water rescues.
Using the Edinburg Police Department’s five water rescue vehicles, officers undertook 50 rescue missions in addition to the 200 water rescues completed by the Edinburg Fire Department, Torres said.
Rescues continued into Sunday afternoon.
In Weslaco, city officials reported receiving 12 inches of rain, not quite as much as the 18-22 inches seen in June 2018, but still enough to test the city’s resources.
And though some flood-prone areas were again submerged by the heavy rains, Weslaco’s newly constructed drainage infrastructure — including two 4-acre regional detention facilities on the south side of town — helped lessen flooding in a city that has twice been devastated by catastrophic summer rains.
“If we can have a few hours where we don’t have any rain, I think we can catch up and kind of catch our breath,” Weslaco City Manager Mike Perez said Sunday.
The Las Brisas neighborhood off Farm-to-Market Road 1015 and Mile 9 North was underwater for the third straight summer.
Closer to the freeway, the Paisano neighborhood was also submerged. In all, 34 people were rescued from the two neighborhoods, Perez said.
But, overall, water had begun to recede from the frontage road and other areas, Perez said, reiterating hopes that more rain would remain at bay to give the city’s infrastructure time to catch up.
And even before the rains arrived Saturday, a vehicle collided into a power pole, knocking out electricity to a shelter that had been established at Weslaco High School and forcing officials to relocate the shelter to the Palm Aire Hotel.
“It’s been a tough five years for the Valley,” Perez said.
Just a few miles north along Farm-to-Market Road 88, the small town of Edcouch also grappled with the storm just one year after being struck by historic flooding.
Things were going well until a particularly heavy band of rain swept through at approximately 4 a.m. Sunday, Edcouch City Manager Victor Hugo de la Cruz said.
“Then that last band came in and that really hurt us,” he said.
Strong winds tore roofs off houses and knocked tree branches onto homes and roadways. About 20 people were rescued and taken to the Edcouch Fire Station for shelter, de la Cruz said.
“I didn’t want to chance sending anybody out to, you know, our nearest shelter was in Weslaco and Mercedes,” de la Cruz said, explaining he thought it would be too risky to transport evacuees in the middle of the storm.
At one point, Edcouch firefighters braved the wind and rain in a militarized vehicle with a high ground clearance in order to rescue a bedbound patient from a home in rural Monte Alto. That man was also brought to the fire station, de la Cruz said.
Meanwhile, crews worked throughout the night to keep ditches clear and begin pumping water into ditches, but their efforts were cut short at about 11:30 p.m. when strong winds prevented an eight-man crew from manning a water pump, the city manager said.
Additionally, city officials had to juggle their emergency response while having access to just one generator located at the fire station. Lines had to be run next door to city hall, where the police and fire dispatch department is located.
Edcouch was also without water service until about 1 p.m. Sunday after an emergency generator at the water plant went out overnight. De la Cruz credited AEP crews with getting service restored so quickly.
With people still in need of shelter after the storm, the American Red Cross, with the help of the Texas National Guard, were set to establish a shelter at the Edcouch-Elsa High School by Sunday evening, de la Cruz said.
The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and South Texas College announced Sunday that due to the hurricane, the university would be closed Monday.
STC specified that online classes still will resume, however.
At UTRGV, the closure means classes will be canceled and all facilities, UT Health RGV clinics and testing sites will be closed.
“We will continue to monitor the situation closely and provide the latest updates,” a release from the university reads. “Please stay home. Please stay safe.”