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Hidalgo County Emergency Management Coordinator Ricardo Saldaña is working to ensure the safety of residents during hurricane season in a pandemic.
The 2020 hurricane season has begun, and is predicted to be heavier than usual. Residents of Hidalgo County are worried about navigating the potential issues during the coronavirus pandemic.
During a “normal” hurricane season, a storm can impact public health by increasing the amount of standing water in the area and lead to an increase of the mosquito population, according to Saldaña.
“There are also mold issues that cause respiratory issues in some homes that are not well-cleaned or mitigated after a flooding in those homes,” Saldaña added. “Those are the things we see the most.”
Saldaña also said there is a risk of young children playing in standing blackwater, and diseases spread by mosquitoes also increase in regularity.
“During a normal hurricane or flooding event, that’s what we usually experience,” Saldaña said. “Now we have to deal with that [pandemic] monster.”
Keeping social distancing and hygiene in mind is imperative during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have to make necessary arrangements and add more shelters to our list, or open more shelters than normal, because of the social spacing needed within those congregate shelters,” Saldaña said, speaking on how the county has been preparing to face the unique hurricane season.
In the last few years Hidalgo County residents have made complaints to municipalities about the drainage system, notably after the flooding that swept the area in 2018 that brought the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the RGV. Since the last major events, a bond issuance was passed that distributed funds for drainage improvements throughout the county.
“They’re still working on various projects throughout the county,” Saldaña said. “A lot of the communities along with the county drainage districts and precincts have taken a diligent effort in mitigating and cleaning up a lot of those drainage ditches, including drainage and retention ponds within city limits.”
Saldaña said everything is being cleared out for a free flow of water.
“Right now with this heavy rain and all the leaves falling, a lot of that stuff becomes a problematic issue, especially in the municipal setting, with the clogging of those drainage ponds,” Saldaña said, noting the county is also asking the citizens to do their part. “Break up your leaves, pick up your grass clippings after you cut your grass, that will keep the system clean and allow a free-flow of water.”
He added that it is unfortunate that sometimes when there is a mass amount of water at one time, there will be a potential overflow.
“That’s nature, and that’s the way the system works,” Saldaña said. “But if we have a steady rain and the water is flowing well, we’re good. But if we get a massive amount of rain, yeah we’re going to have some backup issues.”
When the coronavirus pandemic first hit the United States, residents across the nation began panic-buying cleaning supplies, water and food at grocery stores, which led to a shortage of goods far earlier than hurricane season, when panic-buying is more usual.
“It’s going to be a situation where there’s going to be a need for everybody,” Saldaña said. “This pandemic has created some hardship issues for businesses and residents of Hidalgo County in the sense of them losing their employment.”
Saldaña said that because the finances of county residents are in jeopardy, more people will be reaching out to food banks.
“The food bank is already taxed to the limit with their needs, and they continue to get more and more,” Saldaña said. “There’s going to be even more of a need prior to or after an event for those food products.”
He suggested that the best course of action to prepare for the hurricane season in a pandemic is begin buying supplies and food slowly.
“Don’t want until the last minute,” Saldaña said. “Buy slow, stock up on your nonperishable foods, make sure you have plenty of drinking water, flashlights and batteries, essentials, baby products, and medication for the elderly, money on hand, a vehicle full of gas, and don’t forget provisions for your pets and don’t let them loose – take care of them.”
For those with elderly parents or loved ones living separately, Saldaña said it was best for them to stay with others if possible.
“If they have an elderly neighbor and they have no relatives in town, be a good neighbor, approach them and ask if they want to stay with them,” Saldaña said. “Watch over them. Being good neighbors will help a lot, especially for our elders.”
Should the county be impacted by a major storm in the midst of COVID-19, Saldaña said it was best to shelter at home.
“If you know your property is subject to flooding, and things of that nature, make arrangements prior with family members or elsewhere outside the Valley and go there to stay and shelter in place,” Saldaña said. “Don’t go mingle elsewhere. You may end up with family members, but that’s better than going out with the general public.”
The Hidalgo County Emergency Management department is currently working with the American Red Cross on their shelter plan.
“There’s already a plan in place should we have to do sheltering during a hurricane with this pandemic event,” Saldaña said. “But the beginning portion is that we’re going to ask all residents to shelter in place first.”
Should the county get impacted by a storm, the plan set with the American Red Cross will be conducted in three phases. Staying aware of everything is necessary, according to Saldaña.
“It is very important that we stay focused with what we’re doing, especially because our numbers are rising with this pandemic in Hidalgo County,” Saldaña said. “Be aware of the weather. [Recently] we had significant rainfall, our grounds are already saturated – so if we get more rain the potential for flooding is there.”
“Pay attention to what is going on,” Saldaña added. “We need to stay focused on our surroundings and everyday current events.”