Brownsville was not on the list of places we intended to visit, but several weeks into our San Antonio stay, with temperatures fluctuating between the 50’s and 60’s, Bob had enough. “Maybe we need to rethink Florida,” he said, “I was hoping it would be warmer here.” So, we changed course and headed south … as far south as we were able to go. We went to Brownsville, the southernmost town in Texas.
We knew that a “cold snap” was coming. Although we don’t watch much TV, we have multiple weather apps and read the news every morning, but we never got the message that the arctic was sending a blanket of freezing wind our way that would last for days. We arrived on a grey, blustery Friday in the 40’s. Saturday, the temperature dropped to the high 30s and the wind picked up. We didn’t really prepare for this! Shortly before leaving Connecticut, we had gone through our clothes one last time and got rid of a lot of stuff that we didn’t think we’d need. I pared down from two pairs of sweatpants to one, but I brought gloves. Bob packed long Johns, but no winter gloves! Most of the time our winter jackets just take up space in the closet and get pushed from side to side, but we are so glad we had them this week! We went to Walmart to see if we could get a pair of warm gloves for Bob, but they don’t even sell warm jackets or gloves down here!
Sunday we woke to the low 30s and the wind ramped up to 22 mph sustained. Because this RV park is brand new, the trees are babies and do nothing to block the wind. It’s also very flat here at only 33’ above sea level. The wind was constant and by nightfall, the sustained winds included gusts as high as 36 mph and the temperature dropped into the 20’s. Bob had disconnected our water hose and put a shop light in the basement near the tanks so they wouldn’t freeze. We lost electricity and started the generator to keep our heat running.
Now, I know folks back in Connecticut are probably reading this and thinking that it’s just a normal winter, but think about this … Brownsville is 1700 miles southwest of Connecticut, and the equator is only 1700 miles further south from here. Brownsville is on the same latitude as Miami and just three degrees farther north than Kauai, Hawaii. This kind of weather is not supposed to happen here!
It took a few days, but Brownsville got itself back to normal. We heard from friends in San Antonio, 275 miles north of us, that so many water mains broke that they are under orders to boil water, and the park’s laundry room and bath houses are closed.
A news article said that Harris County, which includes Houston, has an estimated 55,000 buildings with burst pipes. It will be several weeks until they have an actual number. That’s just one of 254 counties in Texas. Another article said that because Texas doesn’t regulate electricity, there has been no incentive for the 70 power companies in the state to winterize their equipment. The last time an arctic storm hit Texas was 2011, but that storm was more localized on the eastern side of the state and didn’t drop as far south or spread as far west. Storms in 1899, 1951, 1983 and 1989 were as bad as the one we just experienced. Since these storms are anomalies, the power companies have not found it worth the high cost of winterizing. These storms will happen again and so will these failures.
Another news article, this one in the Washington Post, called Texas’s electric grid a “Wild West market design” where suppliers can charge whatever they want. The “train wreck of that market Monday and Tuesday has seen the wholesale price of electricity in Houston go from $22 a megawatt-hour to about $9,000.” There are 1,000 kilowatts in a megawatt, and the average household in the US uses 900 kilowatts of power in one month. At $9 per kilowatt, that average household in Texas could see their electric bill jump from less than $100 for January to over $8,000 for the month of February!
Other News …
After a few days, we started suffering cabin fever and had to get out and see something other than our walls. We took a drive to Boca Chica Beach. Boca Chica is a part of the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge. We didn’t expect to see wildlife because of the freezing temperatures, and we were right … we didn’t!
What we DID see was SpaceX! Turns out Elon Musk has been either buying or leasing acres of land (I’ve read varying reports, between 24 and 41 acres) in the Boca Chica area. They have been testing rocket engines down here (we think we accidentally saw a launch while we were in San Antonio) and building rockets. You can drive RIGHT past the facility. It’s so weird that you can get so close. What’s odd is that they are in the process of building a launch facility, so the site is all dirt, trucks and construction workers with rockets dotting the facility.
We went to Mexico yesterday. The man who runs this RV park goes over to Nuevo Progreso, Mexico, once a month and takes a caravan of people from the park. We gave it several days of thought and decided to go. We were very curious and had read about all the little shops, restaurants and bars there just to Americans. Our guide recommended we stay on the main drag and meet again to count heads. So, we went. We took no handbag or backpack, about $60 each in our pockets.
Nuevo Progresso looks like one of those honky-tonk, seaside, souvenir towns on steroids. You park in a lot in America and walk across the bridge to Mexico, paying $1 at the border. No documentation needed. As soon as you step off that bridge, you are hit with the shops. Mixed between the trinket shops were dozens of dentists, nail spas, barber shops, opticians, pharmacies, taco stands and liquor stores. Someone stands in front of every shop hawking the same things over and over again, “Lady, pedicure? Manicure? Teeth cleaning?” On the sidewalk were the tables of jewelry, leather belts, hats, bags, etc. Lots of masks! Both being worn and being sold. I was surprised (and relieved) to see so many masks! I said, “Gracias, no,” to vendors about 438 times. That’s an exaggeration, but it felt like a lot. Anyway, we walked up and down the street, Bob got a haircut for $5 and we left. Deposit 25 cents into the turnstile at the border, show your passport and you’re back in the US. We didn’t buy a single thing, but we did have an experience!
Here’s the saddest thing. As you walk across the bridge that crosses the Rio Grande, you begin to hear lots of voices. The second you are above Mexican soil, you hear and see the children under the bridge yelling up at you. They have long broom sticks with half of a milk jug or soda bottle taped to the top of the stick, and they begging for change!! Some kids not lucky enough to have a stick would hold out their caps. The guy leading our group told us that if you give them money, they’ll follow you, so don’t do it.
Walking up and down the street, we saw a couple of VERY elderly people. One old man with a walker shuffled down the sidewalk with a cup begging. He looked late 70’s and frail. And a lady who was tiny and weathered, she had to be 80’s, wearing bright clothes like indigenous clothing was all hunched up, shuffling along with a cup. Bob turned and went after her and put some change in her cup. I saw a mother with a baby slung over her back with a shawl like you’d see in National Geographic or something. Most of the vendors and hawkers were talking and laughing, but interspersed were all these very poor people. Kids everywhere! Selling stuff with their parents or just sitting nearby.
On our way back across the bridge, the beggars were yelling up from below again. I looked down and saw a young woman holding a toddler and a boy around 7 or 8 holding his cap out upside down and waving, begging. The woman was wearing a red shirt and I thought, ‘My God, she has two little ones and she lives under a bridge.” I pulled a $20 out of my pocket, tossed it down and kept walking. A minute later, the woman ran back into my view and she looked up at me like she had just won the freaking lottery. I wish I had thrown a handful of money over that bridge.
Today I found this story online. These are the people under the bridge. Matamoros and Nuevo Progresso are neighboring towns. It’s definitely worth a read.
And now we continue our journey. From Brownsville to New Mexico, mostly following the Rio Grande. ¡Hasta luego!