Marfans turn to each other for support during power outage

Emma Alvarez, center, and Alexis Villela, left, get breakfast Wednesday morning in the cafeteria at Marfa ISD, with superintendent Oscar Aguero serving up scrambled eggs. Like many in Marfa, the sisters had been without electricity since early Monday. The school cafeteria served as a warming center and place for hot meals. Photo by Maisie Crow

MARFA — Marfa has been dealing with a public health crisis since early 2020, when coronavirus first arrived in the state. But this week more crises compounded on top of the coronavirus pandemic, from dangerously cold temperatures to a lack of basic resources like food, water and gas.

Starting before daybreak on Monday, City Hall and the Marfa Police Station were without power. Both grocery stores were closed. There was no available gasoline in the city. Residents and tourists alike were left searching for food, water and shelter.

In the middle of the night, with temperatures in the single digits, power went down across swaths of Marfa. But the cold temperatures were only the first part of the problem.

With electricity out along major arteries like Highland and U.S. 90, many businesses and city institutions that could have helped the community were also put out of commission. By Tuesday, with temperatures rising just high enough to spoil food in refrigerators, Marfa Police Chief Steve Marquez said he was concerned about food availability in the city.

At press time, the situation in Marfa remains fluid. While power has been restored in some parts of Marfa, it’s gone out again in others. State and local officials have continued to warn about the possibility of more blackouts.

By Wednesday afternoon, lines started forming at the eastside Stripes gas station. There are rumors that Porter’s, after days without power, could reopen on Wednesday night. The grocery chain did not respond to a request for comment on the situation.

Regardless, throughout the days-long crisis, Marfans have been left relying on themselves and each other. There have so far been no signs of emergency state food or shelter resources in the city, despite the fact that Governor Greg Abbott declared a statewide disaster on Friday.

Many Marfans said they had no idea they needed to prepare for extended power outages at their homes. In the days and hours leading up to the crisis, state officials warned of “rolling” blackouts that might last for 30 to 45 minutes. Instead, hundreds of Marfans and millions of Texas were left without power in subfreezing temperatures.

Photo by Maisie Crow
Ralph Mediano fills his car with gas that he was able to pull from a broken-down vehicle by puncturing the gas tank Wednesday morning. Gas station pumps across Marfa were closed from Monday until electricity was restored to them Wednesday afternoon.

On Monday, Marfa Police Chief Marquez woke up with power but without cell service. He used a police radio to communicate with his officers.

By Tuesday, as power remained out across the city, Marquez gave his assessment of the situation.

“It’s horrible,” he said. “We don’t have grocery stores. We don’t have gas.”

Marfa schools, where classes have been canceled until power resumes, have become the de facto emergency-resource center for the city. On Monday afternoon, officials scrambled to set up a warming station in a school building.

Gary Mitschke, the emergency resource coordinator for Presidio County, was there to help out. He warned those without power not to expect it back on soon.

“What we have is what we’re going to get,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been told.”

Oscar Aguero, the superintendent of Marfa ISD, still had power at his house. He has been working 14-hour days at the schools to make sure residents were fed and safe.

He was doing so, he said, in large part for the kids. “They need to be taken care of even if we don’t have school,” he said. “Unfortunately, this time we needed to take care of the adults as well — which is not a problem whatsoever.”

After speaking to local officials, including Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevera, Aguero said local leaders agreed the school — with its resources and power connections — was a logical resource center for Marfans. Oscar and his wife Cheri, who teaches at the school, were happy to help out.

“We want to take care of the community,” Oscar said. “That’s what we believe in. Cheri and me, we’re both so blessed.”

The disaster has left locals and tourists alike scrambling to stay safe and fed. Jose Prat, the general manager at the Thunderbird, said he received calls from five groups of tourists on Monday, desperate to find warm rooms.

He couldn’t help them; Thunderbird didn’t have power. Prat also didn’t have heat at his home.

“We’re okay with food, but we have two two-and-a-half year olds,” Prat said. “Luckily, in our house we have a gas stove in our living room. We all huddle together.”

On Highland and U.S. 90 on Monday, tourists wandered around, looking for food or gas. One couple from San Antonio had lost power at their Airbnb. They were heading to Stripes, where they’d heard there were hot meals.

In less than 30 minutes in the parking lot of Stripes, Alpine couple Tom and Johnella Strong handed out 45 meals, including ham, mashed potatoes, gravy and corn. The food would hopefully stick to ribs and help Marfans get through the day, Tom said.

“We feel blessed that we’re able to do this for people,” Johnella added.

Tourists weren’t the only Big Bend visitors left stranded. Border Patrol had rescued dozens of migrants, including nine who needed hospitalization for exposure, said Greg Davis, a spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection.

So far, Davis said on Tuesday, there were no reported migrant deaths. But with Big Bend Sector Headquarters in Marfa also without power, agents weren’t doing standard patrols, he said.

“We have to be careful about risking life and limb to go out and drive on the roads,” Davis said. “If it’s not necessary, if it’s not an emergency, we’re on stand-by.”

On Tuesday, the food situation in Marfa was getting more dire. Marfa ISD started handing out hot meals. Shortly after opening, the center had already handed out around 50, said Oscar Aguero, superintendent of Marfa ISD.

Julie Fischer, a Marfa resident, was there to help out. “It’s good to be moving,” Fischer said. With no power in her house — and without cell service for more than a day — she had been jogging in her home in an effort to stay warm.

Across Marfa, many residents without power hunkered down. Patricia Meckfessel, who lives on the city’s southside, was staying put. “It’s just like a camping trip,” she said on Tuesday, “but I have adobe walls.”

Like others in Marfa, Meckfessel lost cell service for much of Monday. She couldn’t reach her husband Bob, who was at the family’s home in Dallas. But all things considered, Meckfessel said she was doing well. Her stove ran on gas and her house was well-insulated. Her dog Tony and cat Hank were helping to keep her warm.

By Tuesday evening, Porter’s was still without power and still closed. The store had donated food to Marfa ISD, as had The Get Go and local churches. What couldn’t be donated was thrown out, as fridges at the stores — like those in homes across the city — rose above the temperatures necessary for keeping food safe.

In the Porter’s parking lot, Ariel Saucedo, a rug salesman from Laudon, Oklahoma, was packing up. He said he hadn’t made any sales. “The weather affects everything,” he said. He wasn’t sure where he was sleeping that night.

At around 8 p.m., as the night got colder and darker, Marfa resident Rosa Melendez was still without power at her apartment on the city’s southside. To keep her mother and children warm, she was boiling big pots of water on the gas stove.

Melendez worried about carbon-monoxide poisoning, and she kept an eye on the stove to make sure the flame didn’t go out. But she didn’t see a better option. She didn’t want to sleep in Marfa ISD’s warming center, for fears of the coronavirus pandemic.

Melendez was huddling in the living room with her mother and two children, Alexia, 8, and Aiden, 6. Another child, Damian, was staying with a friend who had power. Two other children, Brianna and Isaiah, had gone to Marfa schools to charge their phones.

For a hot meal that night, Damian had brought the family two pizzas and breadsticks. Rosa said she planned to leave her groceries outside, where they’d hopefully stay cold. But the situation wasn’t fun, and the kids were getting bored. Alexia missed watching TikTok videos on YouTube; Aiden wanted to play Fortnite.

For now, the Melendez family is getting by. But with the kids out of school, with Rosa’s workplace closed and with the lights off for days, the winter storm was yet another statewide crisis the family didn’t need.

“I guess we have no other means,” Rosa said. “I hope it doesn’t last that long.”