MCALLEN, Texas – As we near the peak of an above-normal hurricane season, with Rio Grande Valley hospitals at maximum capacity, the state of our emergency preparedness has been drawn into question.

For Hidalgo and Cameron counties, the hardest-hit with COVID-19 cases, memorandums of understanding (MOUs) are in place with the American Red Cross to provide relief should the need arise. But, the humanitarian organization, itself, has had to revamp its operating procedures to plan and manage shelters in an era of sheltering-in-place.

Jackie Drake, communications officer for the American Red Cross Texas Gulf Coast region, says the nonprofit’s updated protocols follow social distancing guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Instead of inhabiting large, open venues as they have in the past, the American Red Cross has been coordinating with the hotels and hotel associations to secure rooms in the event of a disaster.

Jackie Drake

These new practices were tested when a tornado struck Onalaska, Texas in April. Drake says they were ready with an ample supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) and had enough rooms to handle all those seeking help. At the hotels, volunteers performed temperature checks and dropped off food at each guest’s door for no-contact meals three times a day. She says that with these measures, they can continue to aid in emergencies without endangering volunteers or those who have been displaced.

“We have to look out for our residents and our volunteers,” said Drake.

Omar Guevara, general manager of the Radisson Hotel McAllen Airport and member of the Texas Hotel and Lodging Association, says that the American Red Cross sends out questionnaires every year to estimate how many rooms a hotel can spare for its relief efforts. With the recent inundation of over 600 health professionals to the Valley, he says this year will require a balancing act to place and house everyone in a state of emergency.

“Right now, many of us would only be able to take a few rooms because we do have the nurses that were brought in by the state to [aid in] the pandemic,” said Guevara. “So, hotels are pretty much full in town.”

The health care workers are expected to stay until July 31, which will be after the latest deadline for the travel restrictions on the U.S.-Mexico border. Guevara says that if the border reopens, hotels, which have been struggling the most under stay-at-home orders, will also need to provide rooms for Mexican tourists.

“I’m sure that every hotel manager would not give up that inventory and sell out and have to tell Mexico, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t have rooms,’ because that would spread, and you’d never get that Mexico clientele back,” said Guevara.

While this all seems like the making of a perfect storm, Guevara reassures residents that there are many hotels in the area, and that they are nowhere near capacity.

Omar Guevara

“Every hotel is going to have room available in a dire emergency,” said Guevara. “I can promise you that. Nobody is completely sold out. There isn’t a hotel manager in town that would completely sell out his hotel right now, knowing that Mexico could open up, knowing that there might be a reason for Red Cross to use rooms.”

Drake says that if the unthinkable did happen and the Valley ran out of hotel rooms, the American Red Cross has contingency plans. These include placing people in camping areas or RV parks, and lastly, with no other options available, erecting congregate shelters with cots set six feet apart. She emphasized that even in these unlikely scenarios, they are primed for action.

“I want everyone to know that in light of everything that’s going on, the Red Cross continues to be in communities every day,” said Drake. “We continue to respond to home fires and flooding and any type of disaster that would call for our assistance. And, we’re still here in the midst of hurricane season, and we’re prepared. So, regardless of what’s going on or what may happen, we’re ready.”

Until the border opens, Guevara says the hospitality industry is enjoying the only silver lining in this dark cloud of COVID-19: an economic resuscitation.

“Let’s be real. I mean, we were dead,” said Guevara. “Hotels were dead. I had closed my hotel back in April. We had closed the Radisson, and the hotels that did stay open were running with four, five, ten rooms … And then, economically, to have these nurses in town and fill up the hotels, and the way they’re going to restaurants, and the way they’re going to Walmart – the local monies that they are spending is amazing and has been a huge boost.”

He continued, “Do we want that? Absolutely not. We’d rather see the Mexico business.”

For now, though, it seems that disaster is proving to be not all bad.

To donate to the American Red Cross, click here.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows Radisson Hotel McAllen Airport.

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