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Residents of a Texas Border City Long Felt Overlooked. The Storm Made It Worse.

Del Rio residents, searching for fresh food and water, said that government aid has been sparse. “When they’re running for office is when we see them,” one man said of politicians.

Though last week’s snow has melted in the city center of Del Rio, Texas, many shelves remain empty.
Credit…Christopher Lee for The New York Times

Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio

DEL RIO, Texas — Surrounded by ranch land, towering mesquite trees and acres of thorny brush, the border city of Del Rio can feel like the definition of rural Texas. Residents said they have long felt alienated from the state’s power centers and bewildered by the shifting approaches to immigration by their elected leaders in Washington.

And that is just in typical times. Last week’s epic winter storm, which blanketed the area with more than 11 inches of snow and collapsed the state’s power grid, plunging most of the county’s residents into dark and unheated homes, left many feeling even more isolated, overlooked and forgotten.

More than a week later, many shelves remain empty at local grocery and hardware stores, and a notice to boil water was finally lifted in Val Verde County, which includes Del Rio, on Thursday. Earlier in the week, a line of cars more than a mile long inched toward a food distribution site where federal officials handed out water, fresh fruit and produce. And on Thursday, as state lawmakers grilled utility officials 250 miles away in Austin about the power grid’s failure, employees of a city nutrition program provided meals to about 600 residents, more than double its usual daily load.

“I definitely feel that we are a bit unseen and unheard,” said Michael Cirilo, a 39-year-old juvenile detention officer. Like most of his neighbors in Del Rio, a predominantly Hispanic city of about 36,000 residents, he lost power for several days last week. “Sometimes we feel that we’re kind of alone out here.”

Situated in a southwest patch of the state on the Edwards Plateau, the bicultural Del Rio is across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, a way-station for migrants crossing into the United States. Laughlin Air Force Base, where military pilots train, is east of town, and San Antonio, the closest metropolitan area, is about 150 miles away.

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Mayor Bruno Lozano with the map city officials used to track power and water outages after the storm.
Credit…Christopher Lee for The New York Times

Rick Martinez, 41, who owns a market in town, has made the roughly three-hour drive to San Antonio several times over the past week to stock up on produce that has not been replenished in Del Rio. If anything, the storm reinforced how remote his city is, he said, and how he cannot depend on government aid in a crisis.

“We probably need to work on our community emergency response together and just leave the government out of it all the way,” he said, referring to his hometown, “because they left us out of it all the way.”

In his view, politicians are only interested in Del Rio, where he has always lived, during campaign season. “When they’re running for office is when we see them,” he said, laughing. “People fly over us. They never stop in.”

Val Verde County, where the median household income is about $46,000 and where about 85 percent of the residents are Hispanic, has been politically fluid for decades. But after several presidential elections in which it turned out for the Democratic candidate, it flipped for Donald J. Trump in November. Mr. Martinez was among those who saw Mr. Trump as someone who listened — particularly on issues of immigration.

No other elected official, he said, has found a viable way to fix the immigration system in a way that feels sustainable for the city. “We needed somebody, at least in our eyes, start to fight back against a deck that’s stacked against us,” he said. “He has said some things that were maybe disagreeable to some people, but we always felt like he was fighting for us.”

Over the last few weeks, the number of migrants entering Del Rio has risen, propelled by expectations of a friendlier reception by the Biden administration and by shifts in Mexican policy that make it harder for the United States to expel some of them.

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Credit…Christopher Lee for The New York Times

The surge has worried Mayor Bruno Lozano, known as Ralphy, who said the city has just one center to assist migrants and limited volunteers, concerns that prompted him last week to plead for President Biden to temporarily halt the influx from across the border. The winter storm had depleted the city’s resources, he said in a video, and the city would not be able to manage.

“If you do send these individuals into our community, we will be forced to make a decision to leave them without resources under these dire circumstances,” he said in the video, which included images of barren shelves and long lines of masked, bundled shoppers awaiting entrance into a grocery store.

The mayor, a Democrat, also pleaded with Mr. Biden to not release the migrants without proper Covid-19 screening, in order to protect “taxpaying citizens.”

Mr. Lozano, 38, said he understood the concerns of his constituents — and why someone like Mr. Martinez would have voted for Mr. Trump.

“The federal government is forcing local help, local volunteers, local nonprofit organizations to choose between their own citizens and friends and family and neighbors — and migrants that have been through hell and back crossing into the United States,” he said during an interview this week. “We shouldn’t have to be forced to process these migrants, even during the good times.”

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Credit…Christopher Lee for The New York Times

In the end, only one family of migrants stayed overnight in Del Rio during last week’s storm, said Tiffany Burrow, director of operations at the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition. Migrants apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol are dropped off at the center, and volunteers there help facilitate the nonfinancial details of travel to their final destination.

This Monday, about 20 migrants sought aid at the coalition. But on Wednesday, that number had jumped to 76 — about triple what they typically saw in a single week before the recent surge that began last month, Ms. Burrow said.

Mr. Lozano said he had no choice but to put his residents before immigrants. “Here we are,” he said, “a rural city that’s disconnected from major metropolitan areas — and we’re left behind.”

It is not just border issues, he said. He is dismayed by headlines announcing major transit and infrastructure projects and mass Covid-19 vaccination sites across the state and country — initiatives that have not made their way to Del Rio, he said. “What about us,” he asked.

That feeling was shared by many residents across the city.

Elsa Hernandez, a retired school secretary, has not had running water in more than a week. Her busted pipes cannot be fixed, she said, because there are no supplies in Del Rio for any of the plumbers in the city. Ms. Hernandez, 68, has been staying at a friend’s house for several days and feels left behind.

“I feel that I’m not getting any support whatsoever,” she said, adding that she worried about how she would pay for the damages from the storm. She also blamed city officials, who she said failed to adequately prepare residents for the storm’s wallop.

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Credit…Christopher Lee for The New York Times

About 30,000 of Val Verde County’s 49,000 residents lost power during the storm, said County Judge Lewis Owens, the top elected official. At least 15 dialysis patients had to be transported an hour away to Eagle Pass, also a border city, when a hospital lost water pressure.

On Thursday, state lawmakers held hearings to investigate the Electric Reliability Council of Texas and its handling of last week’s power outages, which affected nearly every one of the state’s 254 counties and left more than four million Texans without electricity, some for many days. Five officials have resigned from the group’s board, which oversees the Texas power grid.

Mayor Lozano noted that his office also was left without power and had sporadic internet access, making it difficult to coordinate aid and stay in touch with residents. Still, he said that lessons learned would mean better preparation for the next disaster.

If anything, he and other elected officials said, the storm highlighted how unprepared the region was for such a crisis. The county did not have enough generators or a stockpile of basics, like bottled water, Mr. Owens said, but would for the next disaster.

Still, residents this week were critical of their elected officials. Debra Reschman-Luna, an educator who lives in Del Rio, said she felt like several of the city leaders had shifted blame elsewhere. “It’s a little hard for the federal government to hear you and to see you when your local officials aren’t a voice for you,” she said.

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Credit…Christopher Lee for The New York Times

Ms. Reschman-Luna said her political leanings were “totally fluid.” She does not identify as a Republican or a Democrat, and instead casts her ballot for the candidate she feels “serves the greater good.” It was up to local officials to make sure the voices of residents were echoed on a larger scale, Ms. Reschman-Luna said, adding that it had not been happening in the wake of the storm.

For other residents, politics was far from their minds.

This week, Juanita Balderas, 31, dragged a cart along a dirt road to the food distribution site, which was placed in front of a cemetery, on an arid stretch of land brightened only by fake flowers scattered beside tombstones. Ms. Balderas said she opted to walk from her mother’s house nearby after she heard about how long the line was.

Ms. Balderas said that she had stocked up for the cold weather, but that all of her food spoiled after she lost electricity last Monday. The pipes in her home burst and so she and her family — her husband and two children — went to her sister’s house.

All that mattered now was getting food on the table and repairing her broken home. “You know what, stuff happens, you can’t control the weather,” she said. “I can’t put the blame on anybody.”

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