Oblates Face Storms and Covid in the Rio Grande Valley

Rio Grande Valley

Reported by Maurice Lange and Fr. James Brobst, OMI

Trees downed by Hanna obscure the view of the main house at Lebh Shomea

“Hurricane Hanna made landfall in Kenedy County, Texas just south of Baffin Bay late afternoon Saturday, July 25.  At Lebh Shomea House of Prayer the winds blew and the rains fell all that afternoon.  We lost power just after landfall at 5:00 PM.  However, the wind really intensified about 7:00 PM at times gusting to over 80 miles per hour.  The storm raged thru Saturday night.  Waking up Sunday morning we thanked God that we were still in one piece…. and taking inventory, several trees were toppled and many branches down all around the Big House… but luckily no damage to any of the buildings.  (We had taken preventive measures earlier in the Summer with aggressive tree trimming and removal away from the buildings.)  We were blessed with 4.7 inches of much needed rain and no flooding.”

Lebh Shomea Director, Maurice Lange prepares to tow away some of the damaged vegetation

Life-long Kenedy Ranch worker Pablo Garcia, handles the heavy equipment

Other Oblate ministries in the Rio Grande Valley also survived Hurricane Hannah

In Sarita, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, they had some trees down and one broken window. In Brownsville, at the Cathedral (designed and built by Oblates a decade ago) they sailed through just fine. Fr. Kevin Collins, OMI, who grew up on the Mississippi Coast, was not concerned as he rode it out at St. Eugene’s Parish.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mission, TX

The stronger effects were in the towns of Roma and Mission, Texas. Both had more rain than Brownsville or Sarita, and a tree fell on the rectory of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mission.  Fr. Roy Snipes, OMI, the pastor in Mission, felt that the minimal damage to the roof could be easily corrected.

Fr. Roy’s bigger concern by far was dealing with the number of funerals every week from Covid victims – about 2/3 of all his funerals recently have been related to that deadly virus.  The Rio Grande Oblates are facing a much deadlier and longer-lasting storm with Covid-19 than with Hannah.

Pablo Wilhelm, Pastor of Our Lady of Refuge Parish reported some increase in funerals with Covid, but noted that there are many restrictions about how and whether a Covid Victim can have a public funeral.

Our Lady of Refuge Church, Roma, TX

Fr. Wilhelm has also noticed the lack of available hospital facilities for Covid patients.  Local facilities are often full.  The normal procedure would be to send more difficult cases north to the bigger cities with better hospitals.  But with cities like Corpus Christi, Houston and San Antonio swamped with their own local cases, Rio Grand Valley medical facilities are forced to decide who they can treat, and who they cannot.  Necessary social distancing and safety procedures make it very difficult for Oblates to be as present to their suffering parishioners as they would like to be.

In addition to the hurricane and Covid disasters, the Rio Grande Valley has already been facing an economic crisis: the region’s unemployment rate has soared from 6.5% before the pandemic to over 17% in May.

Salvador Contreras, a professor of border economics at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, was interviewed for a copyrighted story that appeared in the Texas Tribune. He reported that since the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, Black and Hispanic workers have seen larger declines in employment than white employees, as did women and young workers with low education and income levels. In May, the unemployment rate for Hispanic and/or Latino individuals was more than 4 percentage points higher than the overall U.S. rate of 13.3%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since the population of the Rio Grande Valley is more than 90% Hispanic, the economic impact has been devastating.

Oblates are known for being “specialists in difficult missions,” the situation along the Texas-Mexico border is challenging even their considerable skills.