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The Island dodged a bullet when Hurricane Harvey sidestepped the Valley.

But the storm took a bite out of city finances as Island leaders prepared for the worst.

Now, Island officials are seeking a reimbursement from FEMA.

Recently, city leaders approved a budget item in the amount of $110,097 for expenditures associated with Hurricane Harvey.

City Manager Susan Guthrie said the figure will be submitted to FEMA for potential reimbursement.

The reimbursement request as a county as a whole is about $1.5 million, Guthrie said.

City leaders recalled being reimbursed by FEMA for expenditures after Hurricane Dolly hit the Island in 2008.

“We were not affected by Hurricane Harvey, however, the threat was real,” said Rodrigo Gimenez, Island chief financial officer.

Gimenez reported to the commissioners once the emergency management plan went into effect.

He reported a total of $110,097 was tracked in spending associated with Harvey.

“Some of the expenses are for regular hours for employees,” Gimenez said. “We will have some savings in some of the departments that will offset some of the costs.”

Public safety spent about 335 hours in preventive hours.

Hurricane pay and hours began to be tracked as soon as the emergency command center was opened.

Gimenez said 85 percent of the expenditures went to payroll and 15 percent to other expenditures.

Most of the other main costs went to sand, hauling, food and beverages, minor tools and equipment, fuel, storm sewer cleaning to make sure there was drainage and rental equipment used to face the situation.

“The vast majority of the expenditures were related to public safety, public works and environmental surveying and the shoreline,” Gimenez said.

The hurricane eventually turned and made devastating impact 150 miles north of the Island on the Coastal Bend.

A marine mammal stranding is stressful not just for the animals, but for rescuers, too.

To minimize the effects on all involved, experts on whale and dolphin strandings will host a classroom training session Oct. 7 for 30 volunteers at Isla Blanca Park on South Padre Island.

The location for the training is the former Coastal Studies Lab, which is in the process of changing to the UTRGV School of Earth, Environmental and Marine Sciences.

“One year we had three of them, that was a couple years ago,” said Tony Reisinger, Texas AgriLife’s extension agent for coastal and marine resources with Texas Sea Grant. “And then you might go a couple years and not have one — it’s not predictable at all.”

Strandings of whales and dolphins, which can weigh hundreds or even thousands of pounds, require a quick response from rescuers, he said Wednesday.

A typical stranding event could involve several dozen responders.

“On average, maybe about 30 people because it’s around-the-clock, and you have to take care of one if it can’t swim by itself,” Reisinger said. “They have to get into wetsuits and walk it around the tanks.

“It’s one of the most strenuous responses I’ve ever been through,” he added. “A lot of people stay up all hours taking care of them and feeding them, and it requires vets from the zoo.”

Heidi Whitehead, state coordinator of the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network, will teach handling procedures that comply with the Marine Mammal Protection Act and lecture on species that strand on Texas beaches and bays.

By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer

Friday morning, September 15, the City of South Padre Island hosted a ceremony in remembrance of the collapse of the Queen Isabella Causeway.

On September 15, 2001, a barge hits parts of the Queen Isabella Causeway that caused it to collapse.

Just a few days after September 11, eight people died and only three made it out alive. Including survivor Gustavo Morales, who at the time was worried the incident would have been part of the September 11 attacks.

“And my first thought was why the island… in the beginning I was thinking it was another terrorist attack,” said Morales.

SPI Mayor Barry Patel says, “For our community, it was a double whammy, we got hit with 9-11 and then this happened.”

Today the Queen Isabella Causeway is the only way in and the only way out for many to South Padre Island. There are talks of a second access coming to the northern end of the Island.

There is also talks of the expansion of the current causeway to accommodate pedestrian and bicyclist. Either way some like Mayor Patel, are excited about the future of infrastructure.

“When we lose this mode of transportation it has a tremendous impact not only on the economy and on people’s lives. I hope that our leaders take to heart very seriously a second causeway that needs to be built.” Said Patel.

As neighboring cities showed their support to one another it and showcased a connection between SPI and Port Isabel was more than just a physical bridge.

Alfredo Cuadros

Just as predicted, this hurricane season has been a very active one with nature flexing its full force by the way of record breaking hurricanes unlike anything we’ve seen in a long, long while.

Luckily and thankfully, South Padre Island has been spared the destruction that so many of our friends up the coast have been unfortunately dealing with. Hurricane Harvey grazed us by a hair, just bringing heavy winds, rain and also some interesting wildlife that were presumably fleeing from the storm’s path.

Although it’s not quite clear or totally agreed upon, some scientists believe that wildlife can sense approaching storms, giving them the chance to escape or get ready for them. There are many ideas as to how they do it, one of the popular ones being that animals can sense drops in air or water pressure that signal approaching storms.

We definitely had some odd wildlife observations here at the South Padre Island Birding & Nature Center in the days following the storm which were pretty obvious to anyone on this island as they were quite amazing. The first came right after the storm passed — flocks of hundreds of Magnificent Frigatebirds were seen flying above SPI.

Magnificent Frigatebirds are a tropical pelagic species that you’d only really expect to see in numbers out in deep sea waters. These huge, black, pointy-winged birds look like the closest thing to a pterodactyl in modern day times! Just an incredible bird to witness! Their long wings help keep them suspended in the air like a kite on a warm summer’s day out in the middle of the ocean as they look for flying fish to swoop down after, or a poor gull or tern to harass and steal lunch from. There are some regular summer days where we’ll catch one or two flying by the SPIBNC, but we’d never seen the numbers we did following Harvey.

Other birders reported these birds way inland around lakes in San Antonio and Austin. Incredible how much they got displaced! We continued to see them for the rest of the week as they coasted back out to sea from the mainland.

Another pretty obvious phenomenon was, as a friend put it, the swarms of “bazillion” dragonflies that could be seen all over the island. A quick hour’s walk through the intimidating, but friendly swarms yielded more than a dozen different dragonfly species! The bulk were migratory species like: Wandering Glider, Spot-winged Glider, Common Green Darner, and Red Saddlebags. These migratory swarms more than likely got pushed into our area by Harvey.

In the swarms were two species that were new to me: an uncommon Tawny Pennant and a Swamp Darner, which is an impressively large and colorful species.

Butterflies were also strangely in abundance for a few days. Clouds of Lyside Sulphurs, which are not commonly seen on SPI, were everywhere, as well as American Snouts, a variety of skippers, and large Swallow-tailed butterflies. A few of the butterflies present (Lyside Sulphur) use caterpillar host plants that do not grow on SPI, leading to the conclusion that they more than likely got blown onto the Island by the winds.

The most interesting butterfly species reported from the masses were a couple of Hermit Skippers (Grais stigmaticus), which is a rare stray from the tropics to our area. One was seen at the SPI Convention Center and the other at our Texas Master Naturalist Garden in front of our building.

But probably the most intriguing thing of all was that by the end of the week all of these creatures disappeared! From one week to the next! One day they were all feeding and swarming all over the Island and then a few days later they were all completely gone! Where did they go?



It was mid-May, and the 10,000-square-foot aircraft rescue and firefighting facility (ARFF) at Valley International Airport had concrete block walls about three feet high.

Things have changed since.

The $2 million facility will house the airport’s new Striker Oshkosh 4×4 and Titan Force specialized firefighting trucks, as well as providing living and training space for nine specially trained city firefighters.

With another $1 million spent fitting out the interior, the state-of-the art facility will be the center of emergency operations for the airport.

The initial completion date was August or September, but today airport officials say the facility will be good to go by mid- to late November.

Bryan Wren, assistant director of aviation for Valley International, conducted a walk-though of the building last week along with David Wolf, who serves as onsite construction inspector for the airport.

This is what we saw.

The workout, then sleep

The walls are not only in place now, but the ductwork and the electrical wiring are in, too. Most of the drywall is up and taped but not painted.

As we enter the structure, Wren points out to where a big painted mural of the airport’s two prized firefighting vehicles is going to go.

Next, the exercise room.

“It’ll have all their weight equipment, treadmills, ellipticals,” Wren said.

The restroom facilities followed, and the showers were impressive.

“There are three identical restroom facilities. What’s impressive is the size of the shower, especially for the firefighters because usually they’re pretty bulky men, and the height of the shower head is actually higher than normal.”

But Wren was quick to point out the three bathroom facilities are separate and “we could actually convert one into a restroom for female firefighters.”

“Here there will be six toiletry lockers so they can lock up their utensils and toiletries for each individual so they don’t have to keep taking them and bringing them,” he said.

Luxurious, but still work

Since firefighters, when on their shifts, don’t have the luxury of running out for pizza or carry-out, the facility is more like a hotel with all the amenities.

“This is the laundry, which will have a wet sink and washer and dryer, cabinets.”

As for sleeping quarters, Wren points out the amply-sized single rooms are built for one firefighter per shift.

“So you’ll have A shift, B shift and C Shift, three firefighters per shift,” he added.

Next up, individual wardrobes which are built into the walls for each firefighter, clothing spaces which they can lock and leave. The beds are full size/extra-large, and the rooms also will have a desk and chair, Wren said.

“The building will have Internet in each room, and wi-fi throughout,” he said.

What would a firehouse be without a warning system? While there is no fire pole on the one-floor building to slide down, the emergency alert system will be automatically triggered, Wren said.

“The crash system when the alarms go off will automatically turn these lights on, the dorm lights and the hallway to the bay, and it will also open the doors,” he said. “If that phone even rings, all that just happens, no one has to do it, it’s just done.”

Day room, and Viking range

Living facilities for the firefighters include shared spaces where the team can congregate.

“This is a TV day room, and it’ll have a couch, captain’s chairs,” Wren said. “They want an 80-inch curved TV. I don’t think I’ll go that far, but I might give them a 70-inch.”

All the end tables in the day room will be wired with USB ports and plugs to access the internet or charge phones and tablets.

And then there’s the room Wren believes may be the most important one, at least by firefighter standards.

“The fire station was designed around this spot,” he said. “This is the six-burner, double oven with chrome griddle Viking stove with a massive vent.

“This here, imagine on your side, counter height cabinets with granite countertops and an L going that way, and then they’ll step up for bar seating on the other side,” Wren said. “There’ll be bench seating here, L-shaped with a table here and four chairs over here at a dining table.

The kitchen area will have walk-in pantries and closets — three actually, one for each shift.

“Here will be the 27-cubic-foot commercial freezer and fridge,” he added.

Not all day is going to be down-time. In fact, training will be a big part of each day for the firefighters.

“There’s a floor receptacle, that’s built in down there that has conduits that come up,” Wren says, pointing to a space in a room off the kitchen and day room. “It has a TV screen, a smart TV, for any training they need to do, or PowerPoints.

“This wall is where we’ll put their ARFF simulator with three TVs to wrap around and then we’ll put the chair and build the console system right here.”

The simulator is for the firefighting trucks, Charlie 1 and Charlie 2, which cost $560,000 and $830,000 respectively.

“It’s a simulator for the trucks, for the high-reach turret,” Wren said. “In that the fire captain or training instructor can simulate pretty much anything he wants. This thing’s so advanced when you’re in it and if you spray people evacuating the plane, they’ll actually duck and cover because you got them wet in the simulation.

“He can make it do whatever he wants,” Wren added. “He can re-light the fire, he can put it out and have it start at another site, or have another accident happen, and so on.”

The software for the simulator is modeled after an airport in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Convincing the FAA

The software has an interesting back story of its own.

“We were the first federally funded ARFF simulator that the FAA actually paid for,” Wren said. “Because of that, it’s kicked off a massive series of businesses trying to get into it. It was $22,000 for the software and the console system. The console system mirrors exactly what’s in the truck.

“I was told no by the FAA at first, and I explained to them, ‘I’m buying a truck with a HRET —

High Reach Extendable Turret — and don’t you think it’s in everybody’s best interest to train them on a simulator with the exact controls that are in the truck, and it works exactly the way it does in the simulator as it does the truck, versus them going out and accidentally clipping or tilting it the wrong way and its $250,000 to replace and you guys paid for it?’

“And they said, ‘You know, you’re right.’”

Wren said he assumes every airport in the nation was happy to find out the training software and console are now federally fundable items.

For the officers, there are separate duty rooms for the on-duty lieutenant and captain.

The captain’s office is well-windowed, and he or she will be able to look practically simultaneously at the apparatus bay that houses the firefighting trucks, the front of the bay or the airfield.

The apparatus bay where the trucks are stored also will serve as a workshop, with a massive air compressor for pneumatic tools — “they’re already drooling over it” — to fast-fill hydrants to restore water to the trucks quickly if needed.

One of the water fills hangs in a hose from the ceiling, along with a partner hose which will deliver firefighting foam to the tops of the trucks when a refill is needed.

As the buzz and bang of construction continued to ring through the structure, it was a reminder of just how far the facility has come.

“Seeing it all put together really makes you appreciate the amount of work that goes into the design,” Wolf said. “It doesn’t happen by accident.”

By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer

Mother Nature gave Island officials a scare.

It also put them on high alert.

Ultimately, Hurricane Harvey only blew heavy winds the Island’s way, causing a voluntary evacuation, the shutdown of the Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge for a few hours and the evacuation of high profile vehicles.

But no damage to South Padre Island was reported.

“I’m very thankful that our Island was spared most of Hurricane Harvey’s wrath,” said Dennis Stahl, SPI mayor-elect. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to our fellow Texans who have suffered significant damage.”

Island officials began tracking Harvey days before landfall, and were preparing for the worst.

Meteorologists were saying the storm would hit anywhere along a wide swath of the Texas coast, including the popular beach town.

So the beaches were closed, hundreds of sandbags were distributed and some residents voluntarily evacuated the Island.

“I’m extremely proud of City Manager Susan Guthrie and the entire city team for the many long hours of preparation and dedication to ensure our Island was ready for a possible storm strike,” Stahl said.

“As city leaders, we can never take a forecast of a tropical storm or hurricane for granted.”

Even the best meteorology science can’t fully gauge the landfall location of a Gulf storm.

“We are better protected as an island for the future as a result of the drill that Hurricane Harvey provided us this past week,” Stahl said.

The safety of the Island residents, visitors and the protection of the barrier island is always Priority One.

He said the city team worked exceptionally well. Some employees had never been through the kind of drill they performed to get ready for the storm’s impact.

He said people must be ready to change the course of their preparations just as storms change courses in the Gulf.

“The city staff was spectacular and we had great plans in place that we didn’t have to execute on,” Stahl said.

“We were spared; the whole Rio Grande Valley was.”