After The Texas Snowstorm Knocked Out This Woman’s Power, She Had To Race To Keep Her Daughter Alive
This mother of seven was left without electricity, which she desperately needed for her daughter, who has a condition that requires a machine to get food into her body.
No water. No heat. No electricity.
Those were the conditions millions of Texans were thrown into when a snowstorm barreled through the state last week. But for tens of thousands of people living along the border with Mexico, losing these services didn’t just mean struggling through a few cold nights. Their lives were already so precarious that the freezing temperatures made even survival a challenge.
For Nohemí, who lives in a community of informal settlements known as a colonia in South Texas, government neglect has long been a fact of life. When she arrived in the Rio Grande Valley from the Mexican city of Reynosa just on the other side of the border in 1994, her neighborhood initially lacked running water, electricity, and trash services. The homes where she and her neighbors lived were simple and often at the mercy of the elements, presenting a daily challenge even in the best of times.
“The storm made everything worse,” said Nohemí, a 54-year-old mother of seven, who asked to only be identified by her first name.
She lives with her husband and three of her children in a wooden one-story house. When the lights went out early Monday, she was immediately worried about her 16-year-old daughter, who has achalasia — a condition that closes off the esophagus from the stomach and requires a machine to get food into her body.
She considered checking her family into a nearby hotel that usually charged $45 a night, only to find that demand for somewhere warm to ride out the storm had sent the rate up to $110, much more than they could dream of paying. She usually earned money buying and reselling jewelry, perfume, and other items at a flea market, but the pandemic made that impossible. Her husband, who remodels homes, hadn’t been called into a shift for two weeks.
Texas, home to most of the country’s colonias, has largely left the communities to fend for themselves, declining to set any policies for private construction standards, develop public utilities, or provide the government services locals have called for — a stark contrast from the multibillion-dollar federal investment visible just a few miles away, where former president Donald Trump’s border wall was being built.
The storm was “simply another crisis in a series of devastating health and safety crises that are in large part attributable to the state’s failure to adequately plan for, regulate, and invest in safe and affordable housing and basic infrastructure,” Durst said.
There are similarities between the crisis caused by the record low temperatures last week, the failure of the state’s electrical grid, and the myriad crises that colonias have faced over the past half century. “Both highlight the risks posed by a deregulatory approach,” Durst said.
The people living in South Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, including Nohemí and her family, have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. After the pandemic was declared and children were forced to study at home, her three teenage girls’ schools provided them with laptops and a router, but the equipment often didn’t work. One daughter has had to replace her laptop three times because of technical issues.
Then, last summer, Hurricane Hanna hit the region, flooded the low-lying colonias, and smashed through people’s homes. Nohemí said their entire bathroom was destroyed; the wind tore off the roof and damaged their pipes, leaving only the toilet seat in place.
“There’s never enough money or supplies for the colonias,” said Yadira Gonzalez, a resident of a colonia and organizer with the advocacy group La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), which translates to “the Union of the Entire People.” “We’re always forgotten.”
Whatever services residents receive tend to come from volunteers like Gonzalez, who has been trying to get the county to help clear out trash, mattresses, and other items swept up from people’s properties during Hurricane Hanna’s devastation.
After the storm last week, it was up to Gonzalez to get heaters, food, and water to her neighbors.
Since freezing temperatures swept through South Texas, colonia residents would call her cell and ask for information on where they could get supplies like blankets, food, and heaters. She made a list of those who needed help and headed to LUPE’s office to sort through donations.
“It makes me angry. I see the needs of the community all the time and I gladly help out,” Gonzalez said, “but our elected officials also need to come into the community to see the needs themselves and not just sit in their offices.”
BuzzFeed News reached out to Hidalgo County commissioners for comment, but they did not respond.
Like many before her, Nohemí immigrated to the US in search of a better life. She was living in Reynosa with her ex-husband, who was a state police officer in Tamaulipas, and their two children. But, she said, the family was always being targeted by organized crime because of her husband’s work and received death threats. Once, she added, someone rammed her car, leaving her in a neck brace. Nohemí told her then-husband they should move to the US. He refused, not wanting to leave his job, but told her to go. Pregnant with their third child, Nohemí took her two children and crossed the border with a travel visa, starting a new life in a colonia, where she eventually remarried.
Unlike her home in Reynosa, Nohemí said, they didn’t have a sewage system or streetlights for years. It wasn’t until residents and LUPE organized and the local government installed these services.
Unsure where else to turn for help, her daughter asked a friend who lives in the city of Mission, about 6 miles away. So she piled into their green Ford van with her husband and daughter and rushed over.