BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Lines.

That one word defines a lot of south Texas this past week.

Lines for gasoline.

Lines for propane.

Lines for food.

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Lines for shelter.

Frozen water lines.

Downed power lines.

We’ve been coming to south Texas from North Dakota to visit relatives every February for the past 15 years. Never have we experienced anything like what we encountered this past week.

It’s amazing what a week of winter cold will do to an area not prepared for it.

And yet we count ourselves among the lucky ones. Our power stayed on this week, and we had food and propane to heat the mobile home we stayed in.

After our water lines froze one night, we had to thaw them with hot water and then kept them open by dribbling water in the faucet for days on end. This was common in our area.

What’s so strange about all this is that the Rio Grande Valley is not frozen over like the rest of Texas to the north. There is no snow and little ice here.

The problem is that south Texas depends on the rest of Texas for most everything, from power and gas to food and supplies. With places such as Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin shut down or severely hampered by ice and snow, the whole state comes to a standstill.

Refrigerators are nearly empty in a Brownsville-area Walmart on Thursday, Feb. 18, as cold and snow to the north prevented routine shipments. Jennifer Von Pinnon/Special to The Forum
Refrigerators are nearly empty in a Brownsville-area Walmart on Thursday, Feb. 18, as cold and snow to the north prevented routine shipments. Jennifer Von Pinnon/Special to The Forum

We arrived in the Brownsville area last weekend. It was unseasonably cold, with highs and lows in the 30s, about 30-40 degrees below average for this time of year. Then came a night or two of hard freezes.

Local meteorologists called the duration of this cold snap a “once-in-a-generation event.” They said the last time it stayed this cold for this long was in 1989.

When the state’s power grid failed in the ice and snow, long lines of cars began forming at places selling gasoline and propane. Many people who had no heat slept in their running cars to stay warm.

When people couldn’t cook, they cleared out food shelves at grocery and convenience stores. Lines of cars stretching for blocks waited to drive through the few fast-food restaurants that had power. Some of those places used generators to stay open. However, with few supplies coming from major Texas cities, most eventually ran out of food or had limited menus.

Schools closed because many had no heat and virtual learning was not an option without electricity.

Perhaps the most telling line of all, though, was the line of vehicles dropping off cold-stunned sea turtles at the South Padre Island Convention Center.

Volunteers bring cold-stunned sea turtles to the South Padre Island Convention Center to warm up Tuesday, Feb. 16, until they can be returned to the nearby bays. Matthew Von Pinnon/The Forum
Volunteers bring cold-stunned sea turtles to the South Padre Island Convention Center to warm up Tuesday, Feb. 16, until they can be returned to the nearby bays. Matthew Von Pinnon/The Forum

The shallow bay around the island became so cold that the area’s popular sea turtles became cold-stunned, surfaced and had to be rescued from the shores or bay until the water warms up. They can drown if they can’t get their heads above water.

So vehicle after vehicle of volunteers who rescued the turtles lined up outside the convention center, dropping off two or three or 10 of the reptiles that can weigh up to 440 lbs.

As of Thursday night, nearly 5,000 sea turtles had been dropped off at the convention center, even though it, too, had no power and heat for a day or two.

Warmer temperatures are in the forecast for this weekend.

It can’t come soon enough for the people and sea turtles of south Texas.

Matt Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He can be reached at mvonpinnon@forumcomm.com.