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Border towns cut off by flooding

Heavy rain leads to reservoir water release in Mexico that washed out highways, required shoring up of levees.

BY VICKI DESORMIER | PRESIDIO, TX | September 22, 2008


"For now, everyone is still watching the river"

—Melvin La Follette, Episcopal priest


Severe flooding has cut off two small Texas towns along the Rio Grande River. Last week, the water rose to record levels after reserves in a Mexican reservoir were released into the river. The swamped roads are still impassable though the flood is receding.

While most of the houses in the communities are built in the hills above the river that separates the United States and Mexico, the roads leading to them are still swamped by the water overflowing the banks.

For two and a half decades, much of the water in the river has been diverted some 250 miles upstream to provide for the drinking and irrigation needs for El Paso. The water that trickled south was enough to provide for minimal irrigation for the farms around Presidio and Redford and for the few thousand residents in the towns. In the wake of thunderstorms that reached far into the state as a result of both Hurricane Dolly and Hurricane Ike, coupled with the overflow from the reservoir across the border, the river was once again rushing through the cracked riverbed.

Emergency officials in the border towns along the Rio Grande River reinforced sagging levees and shored up bridges with sandbags in an effort to stem the flow. They watched across the border as the Luis Leon Reservoir overflowed and caused flooding in Ojinaga, Mexico, due to a levee breach.

Homes and buildings in that Mexican town were damaged by flooding as deep as 10-feet in some places. With the water now receding, residents of Presidio are now breathing a sigh of relief that the levee held.

Faith-based organizations including the local Episcopal diocese and Salvation Army from El Paso – already stretched thin in the Rio Grande Valley from response to Hurricane Dolly this summer, are attempting to assist residents to cope with the flood threat.

Fr. Melvin La Follette, an Episcopal priest, is helping residents in Presidio and neighboring Redford cope with the high water. He said he can see his neighbors about a mile across the raging river in Mexico, but "it would be suicide to try to get to them across that rough water."

La Follette said that residents on the U.S. side are safe for now. The homes in both towns are mostly built at a higher elevation than the fields where alfalfa is the main crop. About half of Redford's 100 residents evacuated to stay with family and friends in Presidio, which is built higher and considered a safer place to stay.

LaFollette reported that the residents are not sure when they will return home. "For now, everyone is still watching the river," he said.

Carlos Nieto, who owns the department store in Presidio and was once the town's mayor, said the town has survived the crisis but he believes more help will be needed across the border in Ojinaga.

"We'll be good here," he said.

Roads in and out of the area are washed out. A Border Patrol helicopter brought some food and mail in late last week. A large truck from the Fish and Game Department brought food on Wednesday and a state emergency management truck made it through with some more food – residents were very happy to get bags of flour, fresh tomatoes and canned soup – on Thursday.

"All in all, we're doing pretty good, considering…" he added.

Last week, after a dozen straight days of heavy rain, a levee failed, sending water over the embankment and creeping toward populated areas of the town of about 5,000. The governor sent five helicopters and 170 inmates to fill and distribute sandbags to a railroad trestle that straddles the river. The new levee held and the town was spared severe damage to the residential areas.

Downstream, water is still rushing past the high school which sits high above the river on a hill. Local roads and Interstate highways which sit along the river that usually carries just enough water to irrigate the crops are submerged.

La Follette said he is pleased with the response from government officials.

"The county has done what they can for us…they've been really good. Even if anyone from the outside wanted to get to us, they couldn't. And in here it's hard to help when you're all the ones who need the help."

Across the Rio Grande that is both an international border and an impassable watery divide, LaFollette is watching his neighbors in houses at lower elevations struggle to keep ahold of their personal belongings. He has talked to a few of them on the phone and knows they've not received any assistance from their government or any outside agency. They, too, are cut off from the rest of the world by the rising water.

"Right now, that international border doesn't mean anything. We can't get to them, they couldn't cross. The border patrol would let everyone pass if it was safe right now."


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