TX floods create tragic conditions

Residents in one of the poorest parts of the U.S. resigned to "living in the unlivable" with mold, mildew, leaking houses

BY PJ HELLER | ESCOBARES, Texas | September 7, 2008

Maria Rodriguez stands in front of mattresses rendered unusable after being soaked by torrential rains.
Credit: DNN/PJ Heller

Olga Garza and her 16-year-old daughter Jessica stand in the doorway of their home.
Credit: DNN/PJ Heller

Looks can be deceiving.

Nowhere is that more true than in this tiny Texas town, where things may look fine on the outside but major problems and dangers and risks to human life lurk on the inside.

"They're in serious trouble," says Tom Brownmiller, co-leader of the Mission Presbytery Hurricane Dolly task force.

Three weeks after torrential rains — at least 13 inches — created a "lake" three miles wide and a mile long flooding the town, residents are still trying to clean up, some of them resigned to living in mold- and mildew-infested houses unable to afford repairs.

The flooding was exacerbated by ground already sodden from Hurricane Dolly, which crashed into the south Texas coast as a Category 2 hurricane on July 23.

Mayor Noel Escobar says that while his town may have "lucked out" when it came to damages from Dolly, it was left reeling from the unexpected downpour on Aug.18, which was compounded less than a week later with another heavy storm in the Starr County community.

"We used to have potholes in our roads. Now we don't have roads," Escobar said.

"It's hard to drive down a road when there's no road there," Brownmiller agreed.

The town, with a population of about 2,000, was described by Escobar as having one of the lowest, if not the lowest, per capita income in the nation. Starr County was ranked by the Commerce Department in 2006 as having the fourth lowest per capita income of 3,111 counties in the U.S.

Lacking funds to deal with the flood damage, residents were trying to do the best they could to deal with what Escobar said is "extensive" damage.

Driving or walking past most homes, it is difficult to tell the extent of damage left by the storms. The only giveaway may be a pile of debris, such as furniture and other household items, piled up near the street or stacked in a driveway or carport.

Olga Garza and her 16-year-old daughter Jessica were among those who lost everything in the flood. They remain living in their house, which is dank, dark and has no air-conditioning to keep it cool in the sweltering 95-degree heat.

They are living in what one visitor described as the unlivable.

"I am really scared to be there," Garza said through an interpreter as her eyes filled with tears and she broke down crying. "I have nowhere to go."

Other residents are in much the same situation, with nowhere to turn for help.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has requested a federal disaster declaration for both Starr and Wichita counties, the latter in the northern part of the state, which would provide individual assistance for residents hammered by rainstorms. No decision has been made on that request.

Starr County, however, was among more than a dozen Texas counties declared a federal disaster area after Hurricane Dolly, making local governments eligible for assistance. Individual assistance was only approved for Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy counties.

The formation of a faith-based, long-term recovery committee, which would serve Starr, Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy counties, has been in the works for weeks. The planned Faith Communities for Disaster Recovery committee could bring much needed help to Escobares residents.

Escobar estimated that 400 to 700 homes were flooded in the town. Asked how long he thought the recovery would take, he replied, "When am I going to get the next snowstorm."

Brownmiller estimated that recovery efforts could take two to three years.

Escobar said the town, which was incorporated only three years ago, had few financial resources to aid residents and to rebuild infrastructure.

"There's a need for everything," he said, noting the biggest need was to get people back in their homes.

"Anything is good, it doesn't matter what," added Rita Alaniz when asked what she needed most.

Alaniz and her husband are sleeping on mattresses that were soaked twice by the recent floodwaters. She said she did her best to clean them up, then placed them in the sun to dry.

In the meantime, the couple, like others in the community, is living in a house where mold is clearly evident.

Living in those conditions can cause health problems, ranging from stuffy nose, irritated eyes and skin irritation to wheezing, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath and even development of mold infections in the lungs.

At the Rodriguez household, not only are the walls moldy and unusable mattresses piled in a heap in the carport, but the floorboards in their home are buckled in numerous places, leaving gaps in some cases that open up to the ground below. They have pulled up and tossed their soaked carpeting.

Water was so high in the house that it nearly reached the seats of dining room chairs. The couple, who live in the house with their two teenage daughters and teenage son, have photos of family members wading through waist-high water.

Asked how he would repair the house, Jesus Rodriguez replied, "I'll start all over again and work harder.

"If there's no help, I'll work harder to repair everything again," he said, speaking through an interpreter.

The house in which they live is rented and he and his wife Maria said they can't afford a deposit on another residence. Their landlord told them they could either fix the damages or move out, they said.

Despite the hardship, they said they may still be luckier than others who were hit even harder by the storms.

In Cameron County where Dolly left its mark, damage and mold issues are also a problem.

"It's hard," said Maria Garcia of San Benito, whose home suffered roof damage and now has mold growing in the walls. "Sometimes when it's real hot it smells real bad in here."

Garcia said she was aware of the health dangers posed by the mold, which is primarily in the bathroom and her son's bedroom, but that there isn't much she can do about it.

Her husband, who earns a living doing odd jobs, has been trying to do some repairs to the wall and the roof. She lives in the house with her husband and four children, ranging in age from 8 months to 9 years.

Garcia said her application for assistance to the Federal Emergency Management Agency was denied.

"We're trying to fix it slowly because we don't have money to fix it," she said.

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