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Small Texas City Feels Pain Of Falling Crude Oil Prices


Oil prices took another plunge this week, falling below $43 a barrel. That's less than half last year's price. Consumers in much of the country are benefiting, but not all, and we'll get to that in a moment. The downside of low prices also means tough times for oil companies and their workers. Mose Buchele of member station KUT reports from a south Texas town where nearly everyone is feeling the pain of low oil prices.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: Carlos Garcia grew up in the south Texas oils fields in a small town called Alice, Texas. He was raised with the ups and downs of the oil business.

CARLOS GARCIA: My dad was a roughneck himself. He was a driller years back in the '80s.

BUCHELE: That was during the last big Texas boom. The bus came to Alice around '83. The reasons were the same as today. Oil wasn't worth the cost of drilling for it.

GARCIA: And when it did hit rock-bottom back then, we lost out. My dad lost his home he had just built, and I lived through it.

BUCHELE: Eventually, things picked back up. Garcia followed in his dad's footsteps. He worked on oil derricks and did well. But that was up until last year when prices dropped. He lost his job. He lost his truck. He says he's going to lose his car next.

GARCIA: I'm looking for a little work. My wife is working a part-time job. It ain't making the bill, you know?

BUCHELE: So he's got to scrimp and save.

GARCIA: Pinch every penny we've got, and we'll just eat here and eat at my mom's.

BUCHELE: When he says eat here, he's talking about the Alice Food Pantry, a local charity. It's a busy operation off the old Main Street. Volunteers push creaky carts of canned goods, bread and tortillas from a small warehouse to cars waiting in the alley. Bonnie Whitley runs the place. She's seeing more people like Garcia here - first-time visitors.

BONNIE WHITLEY: Men come in, which is very unusual. Usually the women come in.

BUCHELE: She thinks they need more than free food.

WHITLEY: A lot of people are in depression right now and in denial. They just - they can't come to grips with what's happened.

TANYA HINOJOSA: My name is Tanya Hinojosa, and I'm a waitress. I've been serving tables for the past 15 years.

BUCHELE: You remember Carlos Garcia said his family's been eating in? So have a lot of families. Hinojosa used to pull in $65 to $100 a day in tips. Now, she's sometimes clearing just 25 bucks, so she biked to the Pantry for some food.

HINOJOSA: I have never, ever made $25 in a day. It's always been more than that.

BUCHELE: She and her kids have moved in with her mom, and she's scrimping in other ways.

HINOJOSA: We try to buy $5 shirts for school, pants, minimum shoes - $30. No more $80 shoes. No more excessive spending.

BUCHELE: And that's hurting people like Lidia Escobar. I met her at her family-owned children's clothing store down the street.

LIDIA ESCOBAR: It feels like a ghost town. You can tell people are just - don't have jobs right now and the extra money to spend on stuff.

BUCHELE: It was the same at a paint store and a car dealership. Able Perez owns a frozen yogurt shop. He wishes the town's economy was more diversified, but...

ABLE PEREZ: Everybody here now is involved in the oil business whether we like it or not.

BUCHELE: So they keep tabs on oil prices and hope they go up again quickly. Back at the Food Pantry, Carlos Garcia, the unemployed roughneck, says it's hard to believe how fast things seem to fall apart.

GARCIA: It was going good. Everybody was making money, and everybody was spoiling themselves, you know? And I can hear the cry all over town now. Everybody is suffering.

BUCHELE: He has advice for the town's young people.

GARCIA: Stick to school. And like I've always said, we chose the industry. It didn't choose us. And we're just paying for it now.

BUCHELE: It's just, in a place like Alice, there really weren't a whole lot of other options. For NPR News, I'm Mose Buchele. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mose Buchele is the Austin-based broadcast reporter for KUT's NPR partnership StateImpact Texas . He has been on staff at KUT 90.5 since 2009, covering local and state issues. Mose has also worked as a blogger on politics and an education reporter at his hometown paper in Western Massachusetts. He holds masters degrees in Latin American Studies and Journalism from UT Austin.