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Winter Storm Uri continues to affect South Texas homes, revealing the vulnerability of some cities’ antiquated water systems and their inability to survive extreme water and climate changes.
Nearly a week after the Valentine’s Day storm wrought havoc across the state, causing millions to go days without electricity or water, utility services were restored by February 19 in Frio County.
Even though water was restored to many residents by that day, water problems lingered on a large scale. Texans had to boil water due to safety concerns after the storm compromised municipal water supplies, but the problems did not stop there. Broken pipes had affected thousands more homes.
“These were not simply leaks and drips,” Frio County Pct. 4 Commissioner Jose Asuncion says. “It is cracked pipes that gushed water at full pressure.”
Family and friends gathered to help those in need after the storm passed but the community soon learned many were left behind.
“We found six homes in Frio County that had no running water one month after the storm and at least fifty more that only had partial water,” the commissioner says.
Families desperate to supply water to their homes were resorting to running hoses connected to outdoor spigots for their bathrooms.
Buckets, containers, packing containers, whatever families could get their hands on were used to transport water in their homes so they could cook, clean or simply take a shower, the commissioner says.
Although grateful he qualified for a temporary hotel stay through the AACOG’s emergency housing program, Dilley native Refugio Pimentael-Chavez is ready to be back in his home.
Pimentael-Chavez’ normal cheery disposition turned gloomy when he realized all the pipes in his home were broken and he had no means to fix them.
“I was without water for seven weeks after the storm,” the man says. “It busted all of the pipes to my home and I did not know what to do. I was looking for help and turned to Councilor Joanne Rodriguez and she eventually put me in touch with Jose Asuncion. He helped arrange for me to stay in a hotel.”
The commissioner says Refugio was not alone in his feeling of defeat, and says he believes widowers, the uninsured, under-insured and a young single mom occupy many of the homes that were still without water.
Recognizing the situation that Dilley residents were facing, Asuncion joined forces with City Administrator Juan Estrada and reached out to State Senator Roland Gutierrez. They soon learned that the charitable organization known as Plumbers Without Borders was coming to Pearsall. Asuncion and Estrada say they were thrilled that help was on its way and anticipated the arrival of the plumbers. The relief, they believed, was the solution to their problem.
That excitement turned into disappointment.
Jeff Morgan, owner of Morgan Miller Plumbing from Kansas City, Missouri, began an assessment of the residents’ plumbing issues. He spent days looking at a number of homes and offered a bleak appraisal. The homes in question, he said, were in such an advanced state of disrepair that safety issues would prevent him from dispatching volunteer workers.
Morgan also felt the damage to the pipes in the homes he examined had been unfit for plumbing work long before the storm hit.
He donated some materials and drove back to Kansas.
As the days went by, the commissioner says he felt that a community-wide appreciation of the urgency to help the needy was slowly fading.
“Mr. [Juan] Estrada and I did not need much time to talk it over,” he says. “We had to do something, especially for the handful of homes that could not turn on their water.”
The pair immediately began contacting anyone who could help them with finances, materials, labor or advice.
Dilley ISD Superintendent Dr. Emilio Castro recruited the expertise of Jose Aranda and Matthew Aguilar; Police Chief Homer Delgado offered funds donated to the police department for community purposes; and the Frio County holiday planning committee donated money.
The two volunteers were able to repair several houses that day.
With little knowledge of how to plumb, Estrada and Asuncion began work on their first repair. As soon as the skirting on the home was removed, a baby rattlesnake lunged at the city administrator.
“It was not a great omen,” the commissioner said with some defeat.
The repairs proved to be more time-consuming and laborious than they initially thought.
“People wanted to help,” the commissioner says. “But it soon became clear that the bottleneck was not fundraising or parts; it was qualified, available volunteers.”
Business owners Monica Prado Sarinana, Jesse Prado and Jorge Sarinana got word of the good deeds happening in Dilley and offered to fix Chavez’ pipes for free.
“Monica and those two men helped me out,” Chavez says. “They came to my house and have been fixing the pipes. He told me they are doing to the work at no cost and that Jose purchased a lot of the parts he needed.
“I would really recommend them,” Chavez grins. “I offer my most sincere thanks to them. I would be homeless without their help.”
Chavez begins breaking into tears. The volunteer work and the community drive to help the needy has overwhelmed him.
“Jose, Jorge, Monica, these people have been wonderful to me,” Chavez says. “I don’t work and they didn’t charge me to help me out. I offered them what little money I could but they would not accept it. I’m just so very appreciative of them.”
With new momentum and a shortlist of committed volunteers, work has continued unabated. Homes in Dilley without any water will have service to the kitchen and at least one toilet and shower by the end of the week, the commissioner says.
Currently there are two homes that have been identified in Pearsall without running water. The volunteers plan to head there next.
“Our commitment does not have any borders,” Estrada says.
The Dilley group does not plan to stop there. The next phase of their anticipated project will require more volunteers. They plan to make a list of homes with only a partial water supply to see if they can improve their situation.
“No more hoses running from outside,” he says. “Many of our homes have been falling apart for decades. We cannot let this continue. We are using the storm to build the infrastructure and teams to respond to future events in a way we have not done before. We cannot wait for emergencies. We need consistent and ongoing care in our community.”
The Centers for Disease Control uses the social vulnerability index as a metric to measure a community’s ability to respond to an emergency based on a number of social and economic factors. In that CDC ranking, Frio County ranks 245th out of the 254 counties in Texas.
“We need to come together to take care of our own, not just in spoken words but in deeds,” Estrada says. “The harvest is great but the laborers are few. We are in dire need of selfless volunteers.”