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Tx border residents begin cleanup

At least 15 neighborhoods flooded as Rio Grande rises to levels not seen since 1967

BY JOHN PAPE | LOREDO, TX | July 12, 2010

“It hurts; it hurts real bad to see everything you have under that dirty water,” 75-year-old Horacio Resendez said as he surveyed his flood-ravaged home just west of the legendary Texas border town of Laredo.

Resendez was one of a handful of residents who returned to look at their homes over the weekend to see what the rampaging Rio Grande River had destroyed, and what it had left.

Resendez, who was born in Mexico, said most of his modest possessions were gone.

“Mexicans just start over. I guess I’ll just start over,” he said in his native Spanish.

Some 15 neighborhoods in the Laredo area were inundated when the Rio Grande breached its banks late last week following days of rain caused by the remnants of Hurricane Alex. The relentless precipitation brought the river, which marks the international border between Texas and Mexico, to its highest levels since Hurricane Beulah in 1967.

Police and National Guard troops stood guard in the affected areas to prevent looting. City and state officials, along with American Red Cross relief representatives, began conducting walk-through damage assessments as floodwaters began to recede.

While a few residents complained they did not get adequate warning about rising river levels, most seemed resigned to the situation.

“It’s an act of God; what do you do? You can’t stop the river,” west Laredo resident Maribel Sanchez said. “I just hope we can get some help to rebuild our lives. We’re poor people and a lot of us lost everything we had.”

Sanchez said she was able to help save a few possessions, including family photos and keepsakes, as well as some clothes. She also said her family was fortunate to be able to move in with relatives whose home was not in the flooded area.

“We’re lucky; everybody’s OK. We’ll just replace or repair what we can,” she said. “At least we’re not in a shelter.”

Laredo city officials estimated some 50 homes were flooded, but city spokesperson Xochil Mora Garcia said that number could rise as the assessment of damage continues after floodwaters recede completely.

“It will still be a while before things are back to normal,” she said.

No dollar estimates on the damage in Laredo was immediately available.

The city’s main international bridge, the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge, linking downtown Laredo to its sister city of Nuevo Laredo was closed to traffic as river levels reached the bottom of the structure. The bridge was not submerged, but officials closed it out of fear that debris, including large truck cargo containers swept downstream by floodwaters, could damage the span.

Rail traffic crossing the Laredo International Railway Bridge was also interrupted.

Traffic crossing the city’s four other international bridges was severely restricted due to the flooding.

Two downtown hotels that stand near the banks of the Rio Grande, including the landmark La Posada, were evacuated as the water rose. At one point, there was 10 feet of water in the La Posada’s basement, but no guest rooms were affected.

Across the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo, where building codes are far less stringent than in the United States, hundreds of homes and businesses were swamped by floodwaters.

Despite the extensive flooding, only one death was reported in the Laredo area. Mexican authorities said a 70-year-old man was killed when he tried to drive through floodwaters in Nuevo Laredo. His body was recovered by Mexican rescue workers about five blocks from where his car was swept away.

Communities downstream from Laredo were less affected by the flooding. Much of the water that hit Laredo and Mexican communities was captured by the Falcon Reservoir. The massive man-made lake is located about 40 miles southeast of Laredo in predominantly rural areas of Zapata and Starr Counties.

The International Boundary and Water Commission, a bi-national agency that controls Falcon Dam and the Rio Grande’s extensive drainage and irrigation system, began releasing the water from the lake on a controlled basis, diverting much of it into the river’s floodway system. It was the first time in 22 years since Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 that the system was used to control downstream flooding.

IBWC spokesperson Sally Spencer said the flood control efforts were working.

“Right now, we’re well within the capacity of our levee system,” Spencer said.

Spencer also said as water levels coming into Falcon Reservoir began to drop, the amount of water being released into the flood control system is also being decreased.

“It’s safe to say over the next couple of days, people will start seeing the flows reduced,” she said.

The flood control system should protect much of the lower Rio Grande Valley, including the cities of McAllen, Harlingen and Brownsville, from the brunt of the flooding.

Still, some areas of the rural Starr County communities of La Grulla, Roma and Rio Grande City saw some localized flooding.

Roma Police officials said about two dozen homes in that community were at risk, depending on how much of the floodwater feeds into the Rio Grande from tributaries in Mexico. As little as a six-inch rise could cause some streets in Roma to close, while a two-foot rise could reach some at-risk homes.

In tiny La Grulla, a community of 1,200 people near the Starr-Hidalgo county line, the river covered low-lying ranch land, turning homes that are usually more than mile from the river bank into riverfront property. Despite a mandatory evacuation order from the Starr County Office of Emergency Management, most residents remained.

Starr County Emergency Management Coordinator Eugenio Falcon said authorities would not force people out, but those that remained were taking a chance rescuers may not be able to reach them if they become trapped by floodwaters.

“That’s the chance people take,” Falcon said. “If they choose to remain, we may not be able to get them out right away. We will not risk the lives of our rescue workers.”

Starr County also opened an evacuation shelter, but then closed it after no one showed up.

“Most people just don’t want to leave their homes,” Falcon said.

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