The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Volunteers race to save thousands of cold-stunned turtles washing up in Texas

Thousands of sea turtles are being rehabilitated from the cold inside the South Padre Island Convention Centre. (Sea Turtle, Inc.)

The power is out, cellphone service is spotty and the water has stopped running for most of South Padre Island, a normally balmy beach town in the southernmost tip of Texas that has been chilled by a deadly winter storm.

But amid freezing temperatures that show no signs of warming soon, dozens of residents have ventured on foot and by boat to rescue another species that makes its home here: The island’s famous — and endangered — sea turtles.

By late Tuesday, volunteers working with Sea Turtle, Inc., a local rescue group, had transported more than 3,500 comatose turtles for rehabilitation at the town’s convention center. Conservationists look to gradually increase the animals’ body heat as they lie on tarps and kiddie pools indoors.

But Wendy Knight, the executive director of Sea Turtle, Inc., fears that hundreds of those turtles rescued in Texas may have already succumbed to the cold.

“It’s unprecedented,” she told The Washington Post. “A cold stun like this could have the potential to wipe out decades of hard work, and we’re going through it with no power and a unique, more catastrophic challenge to our efforts.”

Dangerous Arctic chill leaves more than a dozen dead, widespread power outages across the southern U.S.

As of early Wednesday, subzero temperatures and sustained power outages had left more than a dozen people dead around the U.S. And animals, too, have also felt the brunt of an Arctic chill that has pummeled Texas and the southern United States.

Near Houston, more than a dozen dogs were rescued from the freezing cold, with the remains of at least one found in the snow. Shelters in Austin and the Texas Panhandle pleaded with the public for generators and scrambled to defrost wells. At a primate sanctuary in San Antonio, monkeys, lemurs and at least one chimpanzee froze to death after electricity went out at the 70-acre facility.

“I never, ever thought my office would turn into a morgue, but it has,” Brooke Chavez, the director of Primarily Primates, told the San Antonio Express-News. “We won’t truly know how many animals have died until the temperatures rise and the snow starts to melt.”

The same is true of conditions on South Padre Island, where conservationists told The Post it often takes days for them to determine how many turtles have been able to survive as the reptiles slowly regain warmth.

People saved hundreds of sea turtles and then helped them recuperate at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in Texas on Feb. 17. (Video: Will Bellamy)

Sanjuana Zavala, a spokeswoman for Sea Turtle, Inc., said green sea turtles live year-round in the Laguna Madre, a salty lagoon sandwiched between the mainland and barrier islands on Texas’s Gulf Coast.

The turtles, sometimes called the “lawn mowers of the ocean,” thrive off the area’s thick, underwater vegetation and keep the ecosystem balanced. But when water temperatures drop below about 50 degrees Fahrenheit — a rarity in South Padre Island — the chill can cause them to become “cold stunned.”

A turtle’s heart rate lowers, its flippers become paralyzed and its body will float comatose above the water, sometimes washing ashore, Zavala said. This state of hypothermic shock can put them at risk of predators, boats and even drowning.

In a normal year, volunteers with Sea Turtle, Inc. might rescue anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred cold-stunned turtles, warming them inside the group’s rescue center. Yet before the weekend was up, they already appeared to be filling up their own space to the brim.

“We knew this was not a regular cold stun,” she said, “and we knew we had to do something.”

The turtle rescue put out a call for help, and soon, much of the island was involved in an all-hands-on-deck effort to transport turtles to an overflow facility at the South Padre Island Convention Centre, where generators and good insulation could keep the animals warm.

Boats went out on Monday and Tuesday to scoop up cold-stunned turtles from the water, as other volunteers on foot scanned the beach and loaded up the reptiles into their car trunks and truck beds.

“It is a huge, huge community effort,” said Gina McLellan, a 71-year-old retired professor and longtime volunteer. “We very often don’t even think about the [cold’s] impact on animals, because we’re so worried about our own electricity and water. With this kind of event, it’s a classic display of humanity toward animals.”

McLellan said she spent hours outside the convention center participating in a kind of turtle bucket brigade: She and other volunteers would approach a long line of vehicles, dismount the animals onto dollies and then cart them over inside the center.

Inside, the space looks like a football field, except “with turtles laying side-by-side-by-side, row-after-row."

Knight expressed her gratitude for the volunteers, but she added that their efforts will eventually become moot without additional help from the power grid.

The Texas grid got crushed because its operators didn’t see the need to prepare for cold weather

The “dry dock” rehabilitation method being used inside the convention center is far from ideal, she said. And dozens of injured and sick turtles at the rescue’s hospital — which has been without power for days — should be treated inside massive, heated tanks instead.

“If we don’t get some relief from a power standpoint,” she said, “we’re not going to be able to sustain this."