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Travelers Stranded in West Texas Back on the Road

Conditions near Balmorhea on Friday morning (Gidget Treadaway)

Update Saturday January 3: Just about all of the more than 200 travelers stranded at community shelters in Balmorhea over the past couple of days have now gotten back on the road.

Adriana Contreras, a volunteer at the Balmorhea Community Center where 120 or more people were stranded because of icy conditions on I-10, said Saturday morning only one man remained because of a flight tire.

As temperatures rose above freezing across the region Saturday, road conditions appeared to be improving, marking a drastic improvement from just hours earlier around midnight, when parts of I-10 near Van Horn were temporarily shut down.

"My mom gave the last two people from the center a ride to Midland where they could rent a vehicle to make it home," Contreras said.

It's hard to get an exact number on how many people found themselves stuck in the town, but at least 200 were on hand at the community center, and multiple local churches were reported to be full-up as well.

The influx of people nearly doubled the small town's population overnight, and sent locals rushing to find enough food, blankets and basic supplies to go around. But Contreras said the whole ordeal might have actually benefitted the town.

"Really, the community benefitted from the situation because they spent so much at our little restaurants," she said.

Many Balmorhea residents rushed into action as the stranded drivers started pouring in, bringing meals, food, water, blankets and hand sanitizer from their own homes. A number of pets were at the shelters as well.

"I can honestly say we've made new friends," Contreras said, noting that many of the travelers extended an invitation for locals to come visit them across the country. "We were blessed through blessing others."

Original Post

Volunteers at a temporary shelter at the Balmorhea Community Center say this week's winter storm has stranded more than 120 travelers in a town with a population of just under 500 people.

Most were hunkered down at the community center, others were at nearby churches, and another community shelter in the nearby town of Saragosa was housing others.

Icy roads have caused scores of wrecks and stranded travelers across West Texas and along I-10 and I-20 in recent days. Just between Tuesday afternoon and mid-morning on New Years Eve, Midland Police responded to 126 car wrecks.

Pictures of the harsh winter conditions have popped up on social media across the region, showing jackknifed 18-wheelers, overturned cars and other bad accidents.

In Balmorhea, organizers say the mood is staying positive, but as of Friday morning, basic supplies like food, fuel and water were running low.

"It's bad here, that's all I can tell you," said Gidget Treadaway, a local volunteer.

Treadaway and other Balmorhea residents have been cooking food and scrounging up whatever blankets, cots, air mattresses and toiletries they can find, often from their own homes.

"We're running low on food, water, hand sanitizer," Treadaway said before having to attend to a sick kid. "I'm going to my house to get all I have."

Adriana Contreras has also been cooking up meals for the stranded travelers. She says they're pretty much all from out of town, heading west and east across the country. One traveler was headed for Los Angeles, another for Miami.

"People have been found in their cars," she said. "They were just trying to keep warm because they didn't know where to go."

For the passing interstate driver, it's sometimes hard to tell Balmorhea even exists from the highway. It's essentially a one-street town, and Contreras says some of the stranded people didn't even realize the town was nearby until they were found.

Though she says there's "a few bad apples in every bunch," overall the mood has been positive, and the travelers' attitudes appreciative.

"We had a guy last night, and all he had was what he had on his person," Contreras said, "and he wanted to make sure everybody else had been taken care of before he accepted a blanket."

The shelter still has access to tap water but other basic supplies like toilet paper, blankets and food were becoming scarce.

"We're kind of running out of ideas," Contreras said.

Meanwhile, Reeves County Emergency Manager Ricky Herrera is working with the Red Cross to get donated food and water from Pecos to Balmorhea - no easy task given the 40 mile drive on still-frozen roads.

Still, Herrera's confident everyone will be taken care of.

"We're prepared for anything," he said, noting that tonight might bring in another round of unsuspecting travelers caught in the icy conditions.

"I don't think it's over yet."

Stephanie Murphree with the Red Cross' Permian Basin chapter says the organization is working with area vendors on getting donated supplies to Balmorhea, though there are still some logistical issues being worked out.

And even for those who want to help, the unusually harsh weather is a barrier.

"Unfortunately the roads are so bad, we're afraid to put our volunteers on the road," Murphree said.

Still, Herrera says the supplies will get to the people in Balmorhea - he'll be the one driving it there.

"It's my job," he said.

Travelers stranded in Balmorhea and elsewhere might be able to get back on the road Saturday - temperatures are expected to warm up above freezing for the first time in days - but West Texas will likely see another freeze Saturday night.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.