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COVID-19 Precautions Make Hurricane Relief Difficult For South Texas Counties

A Coast Guard Sector/Air Station Corpus Christi MH-65 Dolphin aircrew conducts an overflight of areas impacted by Hurricane Hanna near Corpus Christi, Texas, July 26, 2020.
Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard
A Coast Guard Sector/Air Station Corpus Christi MH-65 Dolphin aircrew conducts an overflight of areas impacted by Hurricane Hanna near Corpus Christi, Texas, July 26, 2020.

Hurricane Hanna arrived in the midst of several COVID-19 outbreaks in South Texas, including in Nueces, Hidalgo and Cameron Counties, which have all become hot spots for the disease in recent weeks.In Nueces County, near the end of a bittersweet summer that saw beaches and restaurants filled with people, the county now counts about 10,000 cases and about 125 deaths.

Despite the worsening conditions, Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales also remained confident and positive. She said the COVID-19 outbreak prepared residents for hurricane survival.

“We all know how to stay at home now," she said. "Well, this is Mother Nature’s stay-at-home order for all of us.”

Hidalgo County has also been a hotspot for the COVID-19 outbreak, with more than 14,000 cases reported. The county ranks sixth in the state with the most confirmed cases.

Dr. Ivan Melendez, a health official with Hidalgo County, admitted he was worried that Hanna could further exacerbate problems and put more stress on their health care system.

“This, of course, would create unimaginable tragedy if there was significant flooding, structural damages or loss of life,” he said.

Melendez said the only positive aspect of this experience with the hurricane is that it will require residents to shelter at home. That is key, he explained, to getting the outbreak under control.

Various city and county officials urged residents to maintain social distancing and other COVID-19 precautions. Corpus Christi Mayor Joe McComb told residents that if they moved to higher ground, they should take their COVID-19 masks with them.

“Everywhere you go, keep your mask on," he said. "And if you’re in a home that is overly crowded because of conditions of everybody gathering to protect themselves from the storm, wear the mask in the house. I know that probably sounds kinda crazy, but keeping safe sounds pretty good.”

Officials in Hidalgo County, the largest county of the Rio Grande Valley, struggled to shelter people under social distancing requirements.

“So a typical gymnasium that we could put 200 people in, now you can only put 50 people in because of the square footage requirements per individual because of COVID-19,” said Edinburg Fire Chief Shawn Snider.

Snider said the county’s hurricane shelters quickly filled up on Saturday, so the city had to shelter a family at the police department overnight.

The city's fire department responded to more than 200 water rescues in homes, in vehicles and on roadways.

On early Sunday afternoon, Snider said the fire department was in the process of conducting eight more rescues and responding to more calls for help.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced that the state’s emergency response would include 17 COVID-19 mobile testing teams focused on shelters and 100 medical personnel provided by the Texas National Guard.

The City of San Antonio and the American Red Cross also helped evacuees shelter at hotels.

 “Any hurricane is an enormous challenge,” Abbott said in a news conference on Saturday afternoon. “This challenge is complicated and made even more severe seeing that it is sweeping through an area that is the most challenged area in the state for COVID-19.”

Merrel Waring works for the American Red Cross as a regional communications director for South and Central Texas. She said they need volunteers to help coordinate these efforts, especially under COVID-19 guidelines.

“We need more people because the work is going to be more intensive to make people safe from COVID,” Waring said.

According to Waring, 70% of volunteers usually help with on-the-ground work, but this year most people will assist in operations virtually from their homes.

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