Texas town sees deluge

Sept. 19, the day after Hurricane Isabel made landfall in North Carolina, the southern tip of Texas was inundated with a deluge of rain.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | BALTIMORE | October 10, 2003



"We have lot of farmland, and we have a lot of colonias where low-income people have established their homes."

—Tommy Dulin


Sept. 19, the day after Hurricane Isabel made landfall in North Carolina, the southern tip of Texas was inundated with a deluge of rain.

In that one day, the city of Harlingen, located on Texas' southern tip just north of Brownsville, got more than four inches of rain. In the span of less than three days, some areas of the city saw more than a foot of rainfall.

The storms that dumped all this water didn't have anything to do with Hurricane Isabel, according to Timothy Speece, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Brownsville. And that fact might explain why very little media attention was paid to what happened to Harlingen, where hundreds of people had to evacuate their homes for, in some cases, more than a week, only to return to homes that were slimed with still soggy sewage.

"Any area in Cameron County has drainage problems," Speece said. "It's close to the coast, the land is flat, and it takes water a long time to drain off."

The heavy rains began on Sept. 14 and continued at measurable level until Sept. 23, he said. At first, people in South Texas were glad they were beginning to emerge from years of drought. But that gratitude was washed away by the rain that wouldn't stop coming.

Communities known as colonias small, poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city were hit particularly hard by the flooding.

There's no mystery why that happened, said Captain Alfonso Martinez with The Salvation Army in Harlingen. Most of these colonias are built in flood plains, where poor people can buy homes and property "at a dirt cheap price," he said. Whether some of these homeowners knew about the flood susceptibility of their homes when they decided to buy is open to question, Martinez said.

"You have to understand the Rio Grande valley is completely flat," said Tommy Dulin, a volunteer coordinator for the Texas Baptist Men. "We have lot of farmland, and we have a lot of colonias where low-income people have established their homes."

The result: the American Red Cross shelter set up during the flooding had a maximum of 234 people staying overnight. That number stayed fairly constant for a whole week, Martinez said.

And people weren't merely fleeing from a few inches of water in their basements, he said. Some residents saw more than three feet of floodwater, as well as raw sewage, float through their living rooms.

"It was the nastiest smell. It was a mess," he said. "And people had to go back to this."

Both The Salvation Army and the Texas Baptist Men provided immediate relief to the Harlingen residents hit by the September flooding.

Martienzes said The Salvation Army distributed meals, bottled water and cleaning kits from mobile canteens after the flooding.

Dulin said his team of 15 volunteers ran a kitchen for five days at the Red Cross shelter, and also set up showers at the same facility.

A group of Seventh Day Adventists from Dallas, Dulin said, then supplemented these goods and services with a truckload of donated goods.

But despite this immediate response, Martinez thinks that additional help may be required for these communities. For in addition to the flooding in September, there has also been intense rainfall in just the past week, he said.

While the flooding this time has mostly affected different areas of the city including The Salvation Army's office there are a few communities that have been hit twice, especially the colonia known as Green Valley Farms.

More rain is in the forecast, according to Dulin, and this may mean more trouble for Cameron County in the very near future.

"Our land can't absorb any more water," he said.


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