After the Flood
One year after the devastation left in the wake of what the National Weather Service dubbed the Great June Flood of 2018, many who were affected by last year’s storms are still recovering. In observance of the first anniversary, we set out to learn more about life after the flood, and how local residents and officials are preparing for similar, or stronger weather events. This is the first part in the series.
After the Great June Flood of 2018 that inundated large portions of the Rio Grande Valley, the Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed to help individual homeowners rebuild, but left local government entities to fend for themselves.
When FEMA denied public assistance to the three affected counties — Hidalgo, Cameron and Jim Wells — it meant that any damages sustained to the public infrastructure, such as roads and government-owned buildings, had to be repaired on the taxpayers’ dime.
That is unless other funding sources were found.
According to FEMA, the tri-county area sustained about $18 million in damages to public infrastructure, and that amount was nowhere near the threshold for public aid, which sits above the $36 million mark.
“So because we weren’t able to meet that threshold, FEMA never participated in giving us monies to get back to where we were before (the flooding),” Hidalgo County Precinct 1 Commissioner David Fuentes said. “So you can say that the storm, from the public and government side, really has hurt us because we’ve had to use local monies to get back to normal.”
A big reason for FEMA’s denial stemmed from its funding model, Fuentes said. For instance, damage to local irrigation districts, which provide communities with potable water, was not included in the tally, where previously it had been. Had that damage been included, one estimate indicated the damages to the area would have exceeded $60 million.
Also, anything that was covered under insurance policies was also excluded from the tally.
After multiple failed appeals and requests to FEMA, local elected officials began lobbying state and federal partners for other funding sources, with Fuentes being one of the most vocal of the lot since a majority of the damage occurred in his precinct.
Since then, the area has qualified for at least $46.4 million in aid from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and is positioning itself to obtain funding from a slew of other potential sources.
RAINY DAY FUND
Gov. Greg Abbott signed a $1.6 billion bill last week that will fund repairs and flood control projects across the state, and the tri-county area is hoping to get a cut of that cash.
Before the bill passed, Fuentes testified in front of the Texas House Natural Resources Committee, explaining the needs of the area and how the potential funds would impact the region.
“This is a statewide aid, but it was something personal for us,” the Precinct 1 commissioner said. “I went up as a local representative for our area and testified in front of the committee.”
The Texas Water Development Board will manage and allocate the new funds as it sees fit, and monies could be released as early as next year, Fuentes said.
His office is already ahead of the game as it has already presented several regional projects to TWDB.
“The state is not going to look at Precinct 1 and say, ‘Here’s $10 million for a project that’s going to impact 50 houses,’” Fuentes said. “That’s why we’re looking at them to help us with large regional local projects.”
TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT
Fuentes’ office has already submitted an application for a $4.5 million grant from the Texas Department of Emergency Management that would help some of the hardest hit neighborhoods during last year’s flooding: the Chapa/Las Brisas area.
Homes near Farm-to-Market Road 1015 and Mile 9 in Weslaco saw up to 7 feet of flooding, with many residents losing all of their belongings.
As a result, the county is now building a 10-acre detention pond capable of holding 21 million gallons of water and will make 5 miles of ditch improvements in the vicinity.
It’s an $11 million project Hidalgo County taxpayers have already agreed to fund through the passage of a $190 million bond election following the June flooding.
The county, however, is hoping to subsidize the cost through TDEM, and in the process free up money for other needed improvements across the county.
“We’re trying to schedule a meeting with TDEM in the next 30 days to review the application and ask them for consideration on that project,” Fuentes said.
TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION
Fuentes is also working with the Texas Department of Transportation to improve access to the highway and the surrounding areas in Mercedes and Weslaco. During the June floods, and others ones before that, frontage roads along those communities are difficult to travel, making it impossible for residents to access evacuation routes.
Dozens, perhaps hundreds of vehicles have been lost to flood waters there.
“It’s happened multiple times,” Fuentes said about the widespread flooding along I-2 Interstate Highway. “You have a hurricane evacuation route that you can’t access. I think that’s a tremendous safety concern.”
The inundation there also makes it difficult for residents to go from north to south or vice versa.
“You couldn’t cross the expressway. It was almost impossible for people to get through without having them put themselves in danger,” Fuentes said. “If somebody from the north wanted to get to the hospital, they couldn’t do it. That is obviously not a safe situation.”
But perhaps more alarming, is the inability for first responders and other officials to reach public buildings located near the area, including the Mid-Valley Airport, the Weslaco police and fire departments, county facilities, the U.S. Army Reserves building and the Texas Department of Public Safety headquarters.
“You have all these public service entities that don’t have access to their building,” Fuentes said.
On Oct. 15, 2018, Abbott sent a letter to HUD Secretary Ben Carson asking him for $370 million in aid for South Texas following the June 2018 flooding.
At the time, Congress had just allocated $1.68 billion to HUD for disaster relief efforts and restoration of infrastructure and housing in communities affected by major disasters in 2018.
“When allocating this recent appropriation, however, please do not overlook the significant storm and flooding event experienced in South Texas in June and July,” Abbott wrote to Carson. “Data and preliminary estimates calculated by the Texas General Land Office indicate an unmet need in the affected counties of Cameron, Hidalgo and Jim Wells at $370,846,489.”
HUD later awarded the tri-county area $46.4 million in disaster recovery. Those funds will be managed and distributed by the General Land Office among the three counties.
“We all qualify and we’re all going to have some disaster relief,” said Fuentes, who is working with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn to expedite the release of those funds. “Cornyn echoes the same concerns we have: It takes too long to trickle down. We expect and hope that those guidelines could mean money is distributed as early as four to eight months.”
The funds could also be used for housing projects, but if the root problem is not dealt with, the area will end up in the same predicament next time another storm hits, Raul Sesin, manager for the Hidalgo County Drainage District said.
“It’s great to re-invest and rebuild homes after they’ve been through that,” Sesin said. “However, if you don’t address the root problem, which is drainage… it’s not wise to rebuild unless you allocate for everything.”
ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS
Hidalgo County has two major projects that may qualify for grants from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: the Delta Water Reclamation project and the Raymondville Drain.
The reclamation project is a $95 million investment that would provide flood mitigation and address future water shortages by creating a large detention facility that could filter water.
“There’s opportunity there for everybody to benefit and at the same time we address the possibility of water shortage,” Sesin said. “Our studies show that in the next 50 years, we’re going to be running short on water.”
The Raymondville Drain, a federal project that has been in the works since the 1980s, would provide another major artery to move water beginning in Hidalgo County all the way out to the Laguna Madre.
“We’ve done three different presentations for them, one in Beaumont, one at the Edcouch-Elsa Technology Center, and then we met with them just this last month at the stormwater conference they had at the Island,” Fuentes said.
And while the county has yet to submit applications for the two projects, if awarded each could obtain up to 10 million in grant funds.
Those monies usually require a 10% to 25% match from the local communities, and with the recent passing of the Hidalgo County drainage bond, Sesin is certain the community could meet that match.
“We’re not asking for free. Free is great, but we understand that the whole nation needs infrastructure, and everybody wants it for free, but we’re willing to come to the table,” Sesin said. “Our taxpayers have been very supportive of our efforts, especially with almost 70% approval this time around for the bond. So we want to use that money to leverage it.”
More in this series