The Rio Grande Valley — isn’t.
Despite the catchy misnomer, local residents live in a flood plain. And as those living in the Mid-Valley a year ago can attest, that’s the name it lives up to.
The 2018 inundations also remind us that even though we live at the western end of the Atlantic hurricane corridor it doesn’t take a major storm to leave us underwater. Two days of steady rains were enough to overwhelm drainage systems, flooding hundreds of homes and leaving more than 13,000 without power.
It’s only the most recent high-water event. A year earlier similar rains had flooded much of Cameron County. Other parts of the Valley have faced similar fates over the years.
Fortunately, the Valley hasn’t faced an actual hurricane since Dolly hit the area in 2008. It was a Category 1 storm, but it that widespread flooding from Rio Hondo to Edinburg, and from northern Mexico through McAllen.
After a series of major storms including Katrina and Rita devastated much of the Gulf Coast in 2005, a risk assessment study of the area concluded that if a Category 5 storm swept directly through the South Padre Island-Port Isabel area, it would send surges for several miles up the Rio Grande and the several ship channels in the area, leaving much of the land east of Los Fresnos completely underwater. Thousands of residents would be displaced and the cost of damages would be in the billions.
Forecasters predict the current hurricane season will be a little more active than normal, with 13 storms strong enough to receive names. But can’t be denied that storms have been increasing in frequency and strength in recent years, so local officials must always look for ways to mitigate the damage.
That begins with improving drainage as much as possible; winds might create an immediate threat, but flooding often has more long-lasting effects.
Local officials have taken steps to improve drainage as much as possible. Brownsville has tapped into its many oxbow lakes called resacas, and prepares for storms by draining water out of them so they can receive runoff from the rains. City and county officials in Hidalgo County constantly seek to improve the river levees, both to improve drainage and to keep the Rio Grande within its banks. The secured federal stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Investment Act in 2012 to create the Rio Grande Flood Control System Rehabilitation Project to improve and strengthen the levees all along the river. They’ve lobbied federal officials to include levee improvement as part of any border fence or wall project, with some success during the Obama administration.
But such projects deteriorate, and need constant maintenance and improvement.
So while it’s important to invest in the future, Valley officials must recognize the need to spend whatever is necessary to maintain and improve basic infrastructure such as drainage systems. After all, that’s the foundation upon which the future will be built.
Officials should also consider setting standards beyond those required by the state, and require developers to build structures that can survive major storms. The standards will add to the price of new development, but those costs should be offset by reduced insurance rates and lower repair costs if — or when — that major storm does hit.
Because sooner or later the waters will rise again. And the better we prepare today, the better we can address the problem when it arrives.