Starbucks Coming to Port Isabel

 A “cuppa” latte or macchiato is going to be easier to find in Port Isabel.

Starbucks is building a new coffee shop at the intersection of State Highway 48 and State Highway 100.

“We do have a Starbucks coming into town, but I really don’t know much of the specifications right now,” Robert Salinas, administrator for the Port Isabel Economic Development Corp., said yesterday.

“They’re already working on the site and I believe they’re putting up cinder blocks,” he added.

The $300,000 new construction will consist of a shell building and parking lot for the coffee franchise.

Starbucks has three locations in Harlingen and another three in Brownsville.

But this will be the first Starbucks location in the Port Isabel-South Padre Island area.

Work is expected to be completed by late spring or early summer, according to documents Starbucks has filed with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation.

The Starbucks will be located near the intersection of state highways 100 and 48 in front of the Bealls Department Store at 1750 State Highway 100, officials said.

“I think it’s going to be great for the community,” Salinas said. “I think they’re going to do great and I wish them the best of luck.”

By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer

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County Commissioners Updated on Road Projects

Cameron County road construction projects are cruising along, according to updates presented Tuesday to the commissioners court.

Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority Executive Director Pete Sepulveda Jr. said getting county infrastructure improvements to the construction phase is important to securing federal funding.

“It’s an opportunity to go before the court and let them know if we have any issues they can assist with,” he said. “We want to make sure our delegation in Washington is aware of the projects we’re working on, whether it’s a rail or bridge or road project, so that we can tap into funding.”

Plans to build a second access bridge to South Padre Island, this one north of Laguna Vista, are in the environmental impact study phase.

Sepulveda said the mobility authority received input on the project last year from outside engineers and are resubmitting some of its studies on which the Texas Department of Transportation based recommendations that will save costs. The design phase could start during the next 15-18 months.

“That’s a very complex project,” he said. “There are a lot of phases to it, and it takes a lot longer than a normal project.”

Plans to make the second South Padre Island bridge a toll road have been scrapped. County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. said Texas administrators have moved away from establishing toll roads because they haven’t seen a return in revenue.

Sepulveda said the biggest focus for the project is still getting its environmental plans cleared, which will open it to state and federal funding.

The Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority is seeking funding for the expansion of the Veterans Bridge, which will add four passenger lanes for $1.5 million and three commercial lanes for $10 million. If state or federal funds are secured, Sepulveda said construction could begin within a year to 18 months.

Construction on Old Alice Road from Highway 100 to Highway 550 is set to begin in about one year. The project will cost about $5 million, Sepulveda said.

While it’s smaller than the other projects on the county’s roster, he added, the improvements will be important to residents who travel between Brownsville and Los Fresnos.

By Nadia Tamez-Robledo Staff Writer

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Wait and See: Officials Monitoring South Padre Island for Fish Kills

State and local authorities are still waiting to see whether cold temperatures will result in a fish kill on South Padre Island.

On a frigid cloudy Tuesday, temperatures were in the 40s, but strong winds made the Island feel much colder. There was a constant drizzle.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Cameron County Parks Director Joe Vega and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said they hadn’t found any fish kills yet. Misty Porte, a marketing assistant with Sea Turtle Inc., said patrols looking for cold-stunned turtles in the area had not noted any fish kills, either.

“I just got back from a patrol with another staff member,” Porte said Tuesday morning. “We didn’t notice any of that but the tide is pretty far out so maybe when the tide comes in (the fish) will get pushed in.”

Sea Turtle Inc. is preparing for another round of cold-stunned turtles because of the chilly temperatures. The nonprofit agency was to be closed today as it prepares for an influx of endangered sea turtles.

Julie Hagen, a social media specialist with the Coastal Fisheries Division of TPWD, said it’s not surprising that South Padre Island hasn’t seen evidence of a fish kill yet.

“With this type of freeze event we are not expecting fish kills to surface for a few more days when the temperature increases and the dead fish surface,” Hagen said in an email.

On Monday, TPWD announced that fishing bans would be in effect because of the freezing temperatures. There are two bans in place in Cameron County.

No fishing is allowed in the area from the shore out to a line from the middle of the Queen Isabella Memorial Causeway on the northwest and the end of the old causeway on the southeast, including the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway bounded by the Queen Isabella Memorial Causeway on the north and the Port Isabel Swing Bridge on the south. The adjacent canal in Port Isabel is not included in the ban.

The second area is in the Gulf of Mexico from, and including, the Brazos Santiago Pass south jetty along the beach for one half mile and out from shore for 1,000 yards.

The entire harbor in Willacy County from the bulkheads on either side of the harbor to the harbor mouth is also included in the ban, which lifts at 10 p.m. today.

“The length of a closure is based on the expected temperatures over a three- to four-day period,” Hagan said. “The more prolonged the freeze the longer the close can become. Temperatures are expected to rise beginning mid-day Thursday, Jan. 4; therefore we are lifting the ban the night before.”

The closures protect the fish, Hagan explained.

“These closures were made to protect surviving fish that are vulnerable to capture during the freeze event,” Hagan said. “Hard freezes cause surviving fish to congregate in deeper water and become sluggish – thus becoming more prone to capture by anglers because of their close proximity and lethargic nature induced by the cold temperatures.”

According to TPWD, there are two million acres of bays and estuaries susceptible to freeze in the Lone Star State.

In the 1980s, there were three major freezes, including a 1989 freeze where temperatures dropped to 16 degrees, killing an estimated 11 million fish near Brownsville, according to TPWD.

Late Tuesday morning and early afternoon, no dead fish were observed at the Jaime Zapata Memorial Boat Ramp; or on the north side of Highway 48 by the Carl “Joe” Gayman Channel; at the South Padre Island public bay access; or on the beach near Isla Grande Beach Resort; or off the boardwalk at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, which is on the bay.

Javier Gonzalez, a naturalist and educator at the SPI Birding and Nature Center, said that in early December dead fish washed up in the area after cold weather. That same bout of cold resulted in numerous cold-stunned turtles being rescued, 60 of which were released about a week later into the Gulf of Mexico.

“If there’s one this week it gets real active,” Gonzalez said, explaining that birds and other wildlife take advantage of a fish kill to regain calories lost during cold snaps.

“The pelicans especially come and gorge,” Gonzalez said. “Even birds that don’t eat fish eat to get calories.”

Other scavengers, like crabs and sea gulls, also arrive to feast, Gonzalez explained.

“Everybody’s hungry,” Gonzalez said of wildlife surviving the few cold stretches that descend on the Rio Grande Valley each year.

But there weren’t any dead fish yet, despite bitter wind blowing over the boardwalk.

The hundreds of ducks at the end of the boardwalk almost seemed to be enjoying the frigid air while floating in low tide, possibly waiting for an easy meal.

When asked what a fish kill is like, Gonzalez aptly replied: “It gets pretty fishy.”

TPWD is asking any anglers or coastal residents to report any freeze-related fish kills or large numbers of sluggish or cold-stunned fish by contacting the department’s Law Enforcement Communications office at (281) 842-8100 or (512) 389-4848.

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Beachgoers Kick Off New Year with Polar Bear Dip

As icy wind whipped the colorful flags planted in the sand outside Clayton’s Beach Bar on Monday, Christine Castillo and her sisters waited for the signal.

Precisely at noon, they joined the crowd rushing toward the water to start the new year as part of Clayton’s Annual Polar Bear Dip. It marked the 20th year people have gathered at South Padre Island for the event, which is celebrated around the world.

“It’s just that burst of energy you get,” Castillo, 48 of Harlingen, said of what brought her back to the dip for the 14th year. At 38 degrees Fahrenheit, it was one of the coldest days for the jump she can remember.

“It started out with a couple people just running from their house to the beach on New Year’s Day,” owner Clayton Brashear said. “I think they want to rid themselves of the previous year’s sins and (begin) the new year with a fresh start.”

He estimates Monday’s event drew about 1,000 people.

Among them was first-timer Mary Juarez, 37, who came alone from Brownsville to take the plunge. She had hoped the day would be a little warmer but was still excited.

“It’s something new. I didn’t want to back out because I told everyone I was going to do it,” she said, laughing. “Everybody stayed home, nice and cozy in bed.”

The Polar Bear Dip is an annual tradition for Nick Kapp, 54, of Pacifica, Calif. He has participated more times that he can remember, and couldn’t miss that chance to take part again while visiting family in the area.

“It’s a great thing to do to ring in the new year,” said Kapp, who was with his 15-year-old son, Ethan. “There’s a great community with it, and it’s a lot of fun. I’m really impressed everyone’s out here.”

Proceeds from Polar Bear Dip t-shirts benefit the Friends of Animal Rescue, a no-kill animal shelter on South Padre Island. Sherry Pindart, operations director for the nonprofit, anticipates the event will raise about $6,000 for the shelter, which is currently caring for 32 cats and dogs.

“It brings the community together and starts the new year off right,” she said.

As for Castillo, she and her family headed a few miles down the road to take the plunge again during a similar event at Boomerang Billy’s Beachfront Bar and Grill. She’ll be back next year, too, hopefully with her grandchildren in tow.

“Everybody should do it to keep themselves young,” Castillo said. “It’s a great family tradition.”

By Nadia Tamez-Robledo | Staff Writer

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Policy Now Set at Isla Blanca

Winter Texans, RV enthusiasts, South Padre Island lovers and locals alike will be able to reserve spots at the Isla Blanca RV Park starting Jan. 15.

Reservations had been on hold for the summer months of 2018 because of planned renovations to Isla Blanca Park, including upgrades to the RV park.

Earlier this week, the Cameron County Commissioners Court approved its new policy.

County Judge Eddie Trevino said that the changes are meant to make the reservation policy more fair.

“For decades, individuals had monopoly on a space,” Trevino said. “What was happening before is when people check in in May, they reserve for next May.”

Precinct 2 Commissioner Alex Dominguez also believes this system will be better and more equal for parkgoers.

“We’re not doing this to be mean to anybody,” Dominguez said. “We’re just trying to give everyone a fair chance to enjoy our parks.”

Now, parkgoers will have to wait until Jan. 15 each year to reserve spots in Isla Blanca.

Also, commissioners approved limiting reservations during the peak summer season for up to three months and during the off season for up to six months. And, the county is doing away with weekly rental rates, limiting reservations to a daily or monthly basis.

But come Jan. 15, 2018, the Cameron County Parks Department expects it will be deluged with reservation requests, which have been put on hold since last May — a source of contention for many longtime RV park visitors who sought to claim their spots for 2018.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Sofia Benavides said there are lots of people waiting to reserve for the summer of 2018.

“I feel that maybe you’re going to be swamped with people who are upset,” Benavides said.

Cameron County Parks Director Javier Vega said his employees are expecting just that.

“We will be swamped,” Vega said. “It’s going to be chaotic and hectic that day.”

Making matters more complicated is that a planned online reservation system won’t be available for this year’s summer season. That won’t be ready until late April or early March, Vega said.

Reservations can only be made over the phone or by visiting the office at Isla Blanca Park.

“To reserve, they have to call our reservation office or come into our reservation office,” Vega said, prompting Benavides, who represents South Padre Island, to say she has apprehensions about it.

“We’re going to have to open it (up to reservations) one day or another,” Vega said.

Another big change to the RV park policies include no longer providing RV park visitors with two paper entrance passes. Now, anyone staying one month or longer will have to purchase those.

“They can buy up to two,” Vega said, explaining that change stems from people abusing the paper passes by sharing or selling them.

Also, RV park visitors will not be able to use generators, gas or diesel, unless there is an emergency situation or power outage.

All the policy changes take effect Jan. 1.

By MARK REAGAN Staff Writer

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Cold-Stunned Turtles to Be Released Wednesday

 Cold stunned Green Atlantic turtles small and large were saved by Sea Turtle Inc. earlier this week after water temperatures dropped in the Laguna Madre recently.

These cold-stunned sea turtles were rescued by Sea Turtle Inc. and taken to its facilities to warm up. The rehab center says the turtles have been rehabilitated, are all active and ready to go back in the water.

According to Sanjuanna Zavala, Sea Turtle Inc. marketing manager said cold water temperatures caused sea turtles to become vulnerable to hypothermia, and many were found floating or washed up ashore suffering from “cold-stun.”

The turtles will be released at the island Wednesday at noon.

By RAUL GARCIA Staff Writer

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Pelican storm: Teamwork saves 200 birds along Highway 48

More than 200 brown pelicans were rescued by volunteers along State Highway 48 Thursday, which was in stark contrast to a vehicular massacre of the birds one year ago.

The “Pelican Team” was created following two storm-filled days last December after cold fronts created conditions forcing pelicans onto the roadway that stretches from Port Isabel to Brownsville. Between 60 and 100 birds perished under the wheels of vehicles along a stretch of highway with a 75-mph speed limit.

This year between a dozen and two dozen birds were lost, but the numbers were far fewer due to the efforts of the Pelican Team as well as the Texas Department of Public Safety, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas General Land Office, Texas game wardens, Good Samaritans and the Port Isabel Volunteer Fire Department.

“Thinking back and talking with people today, I think we probably pulled off the road in total something around 150 birds,” said team member Justin LeClaire, a wildlife biologist. “I know I personally grabbed and moved across the road 24 by myself and there were 10 of us out there.”

Other pelicans were flushed from the roadway to safety.

“There’s no doubt in my mind we saved at least 200 pelicans yesterday,” he added.

LeClaire said team members began operating about 2 p.m. Thursday when pelicans trying to escape the high winds from the strong cold front began dropping on State Highway 48 as they attempted to fly from the Brownsville Ship Channel into the Bahia Grande Unit of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

Due to how the roadway is constructed, particularly the barriers on both sides of Highway 48 and the center divider, when the wind is just right out of the north or northwest it creates conditions that push flying pelicans down onto the roadway.

The barriers intensify high winds on the sides but leave a dead zone over the roadway which causes pelicans to flop onto the asphalt where they are vulnerable to vehicles.

“Winds are hitting the barriers and the causeway in general and being forced up over it, and when they’re forced up it really speeds up the wind,” LeClaire said. “In that first lane … there’s this void of air, there’s no air flow going on there. But above it is this increased wind speed.

“The pelicans are flying low down the Gayman Channel from the Ship Channel trying to get into Bahia and they go up and just don’t have enough air going over the road,” he added. “They hit that super-fast wind and they basically stop and slowly cruise downward and they get so low it seems like they hit that pocket of dead air and they just don’t know how to handle it and they just fall out of the air from about five feet up.”

TxDOT has studied the barriers and the effect they have on flying pelicans using a wind tunnel to simulate conditions like those that occurred Thursday afternoon between 2 p.m. and dusk. TxDOT workers also put out flashing signs warning motorists of the pelicans on the roadway and urging them to slow down.

“TxDOT has basically now determined that the barrier is the issue, and they’re contracting for the next phase of this study,” said Nicole Ekstrom, president of Friends of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and an organizer of the Pelican Team although she wasn’t out on the highway Thursday. “They need more studies so that they can determine which kind of configuration would work.

“TxDOT is all about the safety of motorists so they can’t remove the outside barriers or you’d fly off the bridge and they can’t remove the middle barrier because of potential head-on collisions,” added Ekstrom, who also is a wildlife biologist.

Safety of human volunteers was at the forefront of Thursday’s action, with four DPS cruisers and three game wardens all with their vehicle lights flashing — and the Port Isabel Volunteer Fire Department.

Fire Marshal John Sandoval said his department responded to a request from the Cameron County Office of Emergency Management and sent a rescue truck and a command vehicle out late in the day to the Highway 48 site.

As the Pelican Team disbanded because of the danger from traffic in the unlit area after dark, Port Isabel firefighters took the next shift.

“We were trying to slow down traffic,” Sandoval said yesterday. “In previous years, it’s been a complete slaughter out there but I think we did a pretty good job of getting most of them out of the roadway.”

Sandoval said it appeared the conditions that cause the pelican deaths were moderating yesterday afternoon but his department was assessing the situation and would respond again if needed.

Pelicans, alas, show little appreciation in being rescued.

The birds, understandably disturbed by their flight difficulties over the highway, sometimes regurgitate fishy oil all over the rescuers.

Some injured birds were taken to the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville for treatment.

By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer

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Ahoy! Hoy! Hoy!

With the waters of the Laguna Madre awash in the colors of the holiday season, spectators gathered along the bay last Saturday evening to enjoy the South Padre Island and Port Isabel Annual Christmas Lighted Boat Parade.

More than 20 boats of all shapes and sizes participated in this year’s event, departing from South Point Marina in Port Isabel, crossing the Laguna Madre Bay, then cruising the shore of South Padre Island. The boat parade culminated at the Painted Marlin Grille for judging, with an awards ceremony at Louie’s Backyard immediately following.

Mike Valdiviez from Brownsville enjoyed his first ever boat parade, along with four generations of his family, including grandmother Timotea Montana. “The weather was real good, very nice for the kids to be here without coats,” Montana commented.

Her 8-year-old great grandson Misael Martinez agreed, saying that seeing Santa was his favorite part of the festivities.

Boats in the parade were judged on four specific criteria: first impression, theme, special effects and the amount of lights.Ahoy! Hoy! Hoy!

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Man Allegedly Destroys Entrance Canopy at Isla Blanca Park

 It's an entrance many people in the Rio Grande Valley have gone through in the past 30 years, to get to the jetties or Isla Blanca Park.

Now a man is facing charges for ramming into it and destroying it.

People on South Padre Island woke up to unfamiliar sights, the snow and the concrete Isla Blanca Park entrance structure caved-in.

"Oh my gosh, we thought it was the wind," Theresa Collins said, "You know because we've had that horrible wind."

Park officials told CHANNEL 5 NEWS this was no act of nature.

"At about approximately 11:30 last night a vehicle ran into the toll booth into the entrance canopy of Isla Blanca Park," Cameron County Parks Director Joe Vega said. "Basically, it destroyed the toll booth and made the canopy collapse."

Cameron County Parks Police Chief Horacio Zamora said a white 2017 Dodge Ram 3500 mega cab, took down the structure, causing an estimated $450,000 worth of damage.

The chief said the driver, Devin Scott Holley, left the scene.

Today, he turned himself in and is now facing charges for hitting the structure and not reporting the accident.

Winter Texans living at the RV park told us they were surprised by the damage.

"I have no idea, I've never seen this before," said Jim Hass. "It's pretty bad whatever happened." 

Vega said the Isla Blanca Park will soon undergo about $30 million worth of renovations. They weren't expecting to deal with a redesign of the entrance just yet. They'll have to move-up plans to renovate the entrance.

"We want to do something that's going to compliment the improvements that we are currently doing at Isla Blanca Park," he said.

Vega is hoping this won't keep visitors away from the park for the winter season. He said the park remains open for business.

Those who plan to visit Isla Blanca Park will have to go through a temporary side entrance and toll booth that has been set-up to the right-hand side.

Right now, park police are still investigating why Holley allegedly ran into the canopy.

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Authorities Warn to Watch for Pelicans Near Gulf

 Authorities have issued an alert for motorists to watch for brown pelicans on roadways along the coast as a major cold front blows through.

Low temperatures and brisk northerly winds and rain sometimes lead pelicans to land on coastal highways and bridges, especially Queen Isabella Causeway to South Padre Island and Bahia Grande/Gayman Bridge area on State Highway 48.

National Weather Service forecasters noted volunteers and police also may be in or near these locations during the next couple of days and nights.

Two cold fronts 10 days apart one year ago led to the deaths of between 60 and 100 brown pelicans along State Highway 48 as they sought shelter along the roadway.

Forecasters urge motorists to exercise caution and slow down in these areas through this week, especially Wednesday night.

The cold front is expected to begin to approach and pass through the area tonight with colder air following Wednesday into Thursday.

Temperatures will drop quickly behind the cold front and will struggle to make it out of the upper 40s and low to mid-50s on Wednesday and Thursday.

By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer

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