I was but a toddler when Hurricane Beulah ravaged through South Texas in the fall of 1967, slamming the Rio Grande Valley at 160 mph with 27 inches of rain, and exacting damage of about $1 billion in property and other material assets. Most significantly, Beulah killed almost 700 people spread across what was at the time a sparsely populated rural region.
Thank goodness the Valley population in 1967 was only a fraction of what it is today; Beulah’s human damage today would be far more significant because of the area’s dramatic population growth. Material loss would be so much more, particularly because the Valley’s physical infrastructure has only minimally been improved regarding drainage.
While roads, highways, power plants and other infrastructure pillars have been built through the years, the regional drainage capacity has lagged significantly. Our system was designed for agricultural water runoff years before our urban and residential growth exploded. Several times during the past half-century, Valley leaders have had the chance to envision and build an appropriate drainage system to respond to a natural disaster—but it hasn’t happened.
The result of this inaction is a region and a people that teeter on vulnerability. In fact, we are in harm’s way of not only a hurricane, God forbid; we are even at risk of a 6-inch rain event, or any kind of significant rain and water runoff from south of the border, such was the case when Hurricane Alex’s water emptied into the Rio Grande River or the recent hail storm that surprised everyone in the McAllen area. While the Hidalgo County Drainage District #1 works tirelessly to limit the damaging impact of such natural occurrences, local residents must recall the heartache experienced by industry, municipalities, and especially the most vulnerable amongst us. We see on the evening news the loss and desperation on the faces of children and others who lose their homes or other valued possessions with small but significant rain events.
That’s what worries me the most. I worry about children, the elderly and neighborhoods located in low-lying areas, where colonias and other unincorporated areas exist. While no part of the Valley is safe from a big rain, the low-lying areas are in particular danger. When heavy rains fall, families suffer, children have trouble getting to school, and health hazards abound across the region. And much of that happens because of the historic pattern of underinvestment in building a drainage infrastructure.
The Valley has exploded since Beulah. We’ve grown by more than half a million people; our assets have grown from $144 million in property valuation to over $35 billion today. We have replaced large land and dirt areas in communities with asphalt and concrete. Water has very little place to be absorbed, so it floods. Too much is at stake. It’s time to protect our properties, our communities, and ourselves. Investing in drainage improvement makes us safer.
Last year, I accepted County Judge Ramon Garcia’s request to join a citizen’s advisory committee to study the drainage issue, to develop a sensible set of recommendations to the Board of Directors of the Hidalgo County Drainage District #1, and to engage in a public information process regarding the need to improve our drainage system. The committee has spent the past year and a half on this issue. As co-chair of the committee I have come to appreciate the necessity for major investment in drainage improvement. To learn more about the work of the committee and our drainage system visit www.hcdrainage.org.
We will have the opportunity to pass a $184 million bond through this November 6 election. We cannot afford to stand idly by, as the next big storm brews in the Gulf of Mexico. Luck and prayers can only help us for so long. Let’s do the right thing for ourselves, for our neighbors, and for our communities. Together, we can prepare for such natural occurrences. Fortunately, the bond will be on the same ballot with all the rest of the election races. Vote FOR Drainage and the improvements, so we can build the necessary infrastructure we so badly need for years to come.
Francisco Guajardo is Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Texas Pan American and Co-Chair of the Hidalgo County Drainage Advisory Committee.