Hanna’s rain remains biggest threat to virus hot spot Texas

CORPUS CHRISTI, TEXAS (AP) — South Texas braced for flooding yesterday after Hanna roared ashore as a hurricane the day before, bringing winds that lashed the Gulf Coast with rain and storm surge to a part of the country trying to cope with a spike in cases of the coronavirus.

The first hurricane of the 2020 Atlantic cyclone season made landfall twice as a Category 1 storm last Saturday within the span of little over an hour. The first landfall in the United States (US) happened at around 5pm about 24 kilometres north of Port Mansfield, which is about 209km south of Corpus Christi. The second landfall took place nearby in eastern Kenedy County. Hanna came ashore with maximum sustained winds of 145kph.

Forecasters downgraded Hanna to a tropical storm early yesterday.

The storm had maximum sustained winds at 95kph, the National Hurricane Center said in a 4am advisory.

Many parts of Texas, including areas near where Hanna came ashore, have been dealing with a surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, but local officials said they were prepared for whatever the storm might bring.

Chris Birchfield, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Brownsville, said residents needed to remain alert. Hanna’s winds weakened, but the storm’s real threat remained heavy rainfall.

Strong waves at the 61st Street Pier in Galveston, Texas. PHOTO: AP

“We’re not even close to over at this point,” Birchfield said. “We’re still expecting catastrophic flooding.”

Forecasters said Hanna could bring 15 to 30 centimetres of rain through yesterday night — with isolated totals of 46 centimetres — in addition to coastal swells that could cause life-threatening surf and rip current conditions.

Some areas in South Texas had already reported receiving up to 23 centimetres of rain, including Cameron County, which borders Mexico and where Brownsville is located. Rainfall totals were expected to rise throughout the evening and yesterday.

“It’s been all day,” Melissa Elizardi, a spokeswoman for Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño, said of the rainfall.

In a tweet, US President Donald Trump said his administration was monitoring Hanna, along with Hurricane Douglas, which was heading toward Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean.

First responders in Corpus Christi proactively placed barricades near intersections to have them ready to go if streets began to flood, Mayor Joe McComb said. Over 43,700 people throughout South Texas, including Corpus Christi, Harlingen and Brownsville, were without power last Saturday, according to AEP Texas.

The US Coast Guard was called to help with the rescue of a couple on a sailboat that was taking on water last Saturday in a harbour near Corpus Christi, spokesperson Paige Hause said. A swiftwater rescue team assisted in getting the couple back to land without injuries.

Farther south in Cameron County, over 300 confirmed new cases have been reported almost daily for the past two weeks, according to state health figures.

The past week has also been the county’s deadliest of the pandemic.

Coastal states scrambled this spring to adjust emergency hurricane plans to account for the virus, and Hanna loomed as the first big test.

South Texas officials’ plans for any possible rescues, shelters and monitoring of the storm will have the pandemic in mind and incorporate social distancing guidelines and mask wearing.

Cameron County planned to open at least three evacuation shelters. Other counties and cities throughout South Texas had also opened shelters, with many requiring face masks.

Governor Greg Abbott said last Saturday that some sheltering would take place in hotel rooms so people could be separated.

“We cannot allow this hurricane to lead to a more catastrophically deadly event by stoking additional spread of COVID-19 that could lead to fatalities,” Abbott said.

Various resources and personnel to respond to the storm were on standby across the state, including search-and-rescue teams and aircraft.

Abbott said he has issued a disaster declaration for 32 counties in Texas and had asked the federal government to approve a similar declaration.

A tropical storm warning was in effect yesterday from Barra el Mezquital in Mexico to Baffin Bay, Texas.

Earlier warnings and watches were discontinued, forecasters said.

Mexico’s northeasternmost states, coastal Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon just to its west, also took precautions ahead of the storm’s arrival. Tamaulipas disinfected shelters to try to avoid spreading COVID-19, the state’s governor, Francisco Cabeza de Vaca, tweeted.

Meanwhile, the civil protection department was sending rescue boats and other equipment to northern Nuevo Leon because heavy rains were expected.

National Director of the Civil Protection Department David León told Milenio TV last Saturday that as many as 800 shelters could be activated in the parts of Mexico that could be affected by Hanna.

In the Mexican city of Matamoros, which is in Tamaulipas and across the border from Brownsville, Texas, volunteers were keeping a close eye on Hanna, worried that the storm could affect a makeshift migrant camp near the Rio Grande where about 1,300 asylum seekers.