PORT MANSFIELD, RGV – Willacy County Navigation District has warned mariners to be extremely careful when navigating the Mansfield Cut.

The group did this after a vessel ran aground during Hurricane Harvey but before a recent fatality, when a fisherman died during a recent storm.

“We have told mariners, it is not a good idea to go through there unless you know what you are doing and are familiar with the area,” said Ron Mills, port director for Willacy County Navigation District.

“Sixteen-foot boats and six-foot waves are not made for each other. A vessel went out through the Cut, in high winds and six-foot waves. Just as he cleared the jetty, the first wave took him airborne, the second wave stalled out his engine, the third wave flipped him over. One fatality, one critically injured.”

Mills said a local fisherman tried to rescue the mariner but was forced back. He said Texas Game Wardens also tried to help but the seas were too rough to go through the jetties. “The Coast Guard came up the inside, because it was too rough offshore, and they finally were able to recover the vessel.”

Mills contends that if the Mansfield Cut’s ship channel was at the depth it should be, which is 25 feet, the waves that caused the fisherman to die would not have happened. “My perspective, from a professional mariner’s view, is that the waves would not have been six-foot tall if the water had been more than four feet deep. If the water had been 25 feet deep, the waves may have been only two or three feet tall.”

Ronald Mills, port director for Willacy County Navigation District.

The Mansfield Cut is not a natural cut in South Padre Island. It was man-made in the early 1960s. It separates North Padre Island and South Padre Island and allowed Port Mansfield to flourish as a commercial port in the 1970s and 1980s.

However, a decision by the federal government in 2009 meant the U.S. Corps of Engineers stopped dredging the Mansfield Cut.

“We have had no dredging since 2009. The Corps of Engineers was told to cut its homeland budget and concentrate on two wars overseas. So, they decided that any port that does not produce a million tons of cargo a year is now off its list. So, they said to Port Mansfield, sorry, we do not help you anymore. In Texas there are 21 ports that do not produce that amount of cargo,” Mills explained.

What made things worse was Hurricane Harvey. In fact, the first fatality of Harvey was a vessel, the Gulf Justice, running aground as it tried to escape the hurricane. It sought a safe haven at Port Mansfield but ran aground because the Mansfield Cut had silted up.

“The best analogy I can give is, remember what happened when Hurricane Maria hit Tampa? All the news media were showing images of Tampa Bay being as dry as a bone. All the water had left the bay,” Mills said. “That is kind of what happened with the Laguna Madre during Harvey. It did not go dry, but much of the water got sucked out. It got sucked out through the Mansfield Cut. All the debris and silt went through the Cut. Probably half the Laguna Madre, about 100 miles of water, was sucked out of one little crack. We ended up with a very shallow channel and by February it was even more shallow.”

Asked about the Gulf Justice running aground, Mills said: “She was trying to escape Hurricane Harvey. She actually turned sideways in almost zero water. The water on the inboard side of the ship was probably less than three feet deep. We sent out declarations to the county, we asked the Army Corps, anything we could do to get our name on the radar; to designate this as a disaster zone so we can get on the White House’s list for emergency aid. Since then, the White House released its money to the State of Texas, but Port Mansfield was not on the list. Why? Because it never got declared a disaster by Willacy County in time.”

Come February, Mills was getting word from mariners that the Mansfield Cut was becoming nigh on impossible to navigate.

“People were starting to run aground on a regular basis. So, on Feb. 20, the Willacy County Navigation District issued an emergency declaration saying we recommend mariners use extreme caution. For all intents and purposes, the commercial fairway, which is supposed to be maintained by the Corps, is gone. It does not exist. It is supposed to be 25 feet deep. It is at zero.”

Mills said it would cost between $9.8 million to $10.2 million to dredge the Mansfield Cut. That sort of money would allow the ship channel to be deepened from its current four or five feet to the designated 25 feet.

Mills’ efforts to secure Hurricane Harvey disaster funding has not been successful, even though Governor Abbott’s Office has tried to help. Mills thought he might have been able to tap into $5 billion awarded to the Texas General Land Office. But no.

“I got a call from the GLO about two weeks ago. They said they may be able to help because they had $5 billion worth of Harvey money that had to be used. Their guy in Corpus Christi made some phones calls. He spoke to their grant writer. The grant writer told him two things that were basically disappointing to hear. They did not expect to be able to come up with more than a couple of hundred thousand dollars out of the $5 billion they could direct to us. Second, that they cannot use state dollars on a federal channel,” Mills explained.

Mills said the irony is FEMA’s emergency money also cannot be used to dredge federal channels.

“And now the state cannot use their money on federal channels. So, who the hell’s money am I supposed to use? But my contention is that it is not a federal channel because the federal government abandoned it. I do know what we are going to do next. I think we will have to pull another rabbit out of the hat and see what else we can chase down,” Mills said.

“We cannot use local monies. $9.8 to $10.2 million – that is like all the money of all the governmental bodies in Willacy County, combined times two years. That is if they did not spend a dime on people, pay checks, nothing. That is literally 100 percent of the tax revenues for the county for two years, for all the agencies put together. That is not something Willacy County is going to be doing anytime soon.”

Mills reiterated that even if the GLO gave Willacy County Navigation District $200,000 or so out of its Harvey pot, it could not be used on a federal channel.

“The FEMA guy, who went out to the Cut and looked around, that, said it may be that we could get funding if we pursued it as a life and safety issue. That I am still hopeful for. They cannot use FEMA money to dredge a navigable channel just to make it navigable. But, if they pursue it from the avenue of life and safety – and we have already had one fatality and a ship grounded with 12 people on board – that is possible. We need people from Washington to come down and see what we are talking about. I am still hoping that avenue is possible.”

Asked if he was hopeful of getting funds for a dredging operation, Mills said:

“Since February, we have met with the Governor’s Office and various alphabet soup organizations to see who can help us out. We did finally get a disaster declaration from the county, which brought FEMA into the picture. FEMA finally showed up two weeks ago and they went out and did a site survey. They came to the conclusion that yes, you have a problem that was caused by the hurricane. We are going to try to help you with the Army Corps of Engineers. The problem with that is you cannot use federal emergency money to maintain a federal channel. It was like, well, yeah, we are going to talk about it, but we are not going to do much.”

Mills said if FEMA continues to pursue the Mansfield Cut issue as a life and safety matter, funding may just come through. He is also hopeful that as Texas is updating its hurricane contingency plan, Willacy County Navigation District can get its name on the list.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story shows a shipwrecked Gulf Justice at the Mansfield Cut.