MERCEDES — Nearly two dozen Mercedes residents gathered at city hall Friday hoping to hear answers from city leaders about how the city is responding to damage caused by Monday night’s rains.
However, the storm — which caused catastrophic flood damage to dozens of homes which were similarly damaged by flood waters just one year ago — was not the topic of conversation at Friday’s 2 p.m. emergency city commission meeting.
Instead, the commission met behind closed doors for approximately 10 minutes to discuss seeking sealed bids for a sewer line repair project along Lyon Street on the city’s west side — a street that was not inundated by Monday night’s torrential rains.
“I believe city forces may have laid those lines back in the ‘80s or early ‘90s,” Mercedes City Manager Sergio Zavala said after the meeting had adjourned. “One of the things that our engineering firm discovered was … they need to be replaced.”
The city manager went on to explain the issue has been a longstanding problem, and that he hopes to receive project bids by late July or early August, with a contractor secured by September.
“It is an emergency issue, we believe a health issue,” Zavala said.
But, the sewer lines on Lyon Street were not the “emergency issue” local residents expected to hear about when the agenda for the emergency meeting began circulating on social media soon after it was posted Friday morning.
Instead, they hoped to hear about the city’s response to the flood. While the city commission convened in executive session, residents began to voice their confusion and their frustration with the lack of communication from city leaders.
“I’m here to find out answers, like why isn’t anything done,” said Monica Dominguez, who lives on Georgia Street with her husband and mother, both of whom are disabled.
Georgia Street was one of several that was submerged beneath several feet of water during a similar 500-year storm last June. Dominguez said that event destroyed everything in her home.
“The only thing that was left was the brick. I had to rebuild everything,” she said.
Monday’s six-hour storm destroyed everything she and her family have spent the last year repairing. “I lost everything again. I’m still paying for my furniture that I got last year. I’m still paying for it and it’s gone,” Dominguez said.
Dominguez’s next door neighbor — a woman who asked to be identified only by her first name, Rachel — said the storm seriously damaged her home with up to 2 feet of water inside.
Rachel added that she still hadn’t moved back into her home when Monday’s storm hit because the house was still under repair from last year’s flood. “It is heartbreaking. You know, because here you’re waiting to get into your home and now it’s back again,” Rachel said of the flood.
Another resident, Sergio de-la-O, also spoke after the meeting about the hardship of dealing with two floods in one year. “I’m a little bit angry because this happened to us last year,” said de-la-O, who lives on Washington Avenue.
Like many of the residents gathered at city hall, de-la-O was upset with the response from city leaders — or the lack of response — even at the height of the storm.
De-la-O, who is disabled and cares for his disabled mother, said he tried calling the Mercedes Fire Department at 8 p.m. Monday night, just when the rains were beginning to pick up. “We called the fire department and they sent somebody out there at 6 in the morning and it was Edinburg Fire Department,” he said.
Dominguez said her attempts to call for help got a similar response. “I called PD repeatedly. They wouldn’t even answer the phone,” she said of attempts to reach police.
“I called 9-1-1, 9-1-1 told me that they had too many calls to attend to, so they would try to get to us when they could,” she said.
“I thought this meeting today was gonna be about what are we gonna do for the city, for the citizens,” de-la-O said as he and several other residents milled around the hallway with their questions still unanswered.
While the majority of the commission left city hall immediately following the meeting, two stayed behind to speak to residents: newly elected Commissioners Jose Gomez and Leonel Benavidez.
Gomez said city staff have been trying to deal with the flood as best as they can. “We are working as fast as we can to take care of those problems,” he said. Gomez added that high-profile vehicles had been deployed for water rescues, and the city’s dome shelter had been opened to accommodate evacuees.
“Other than that, we were dealing, putting pumps wherever possible to drain some of the water,” Gomez said. The commissioner added that city leaders are working to identify problem areas in order to come up with solutions.
But, he also cautioned that slow drains could have been exacerbated by debris-clogged ditches. “Ultimately, a lot of these problems are because there’s a lot of debris,” Gomez said, adding that residents need to be proactive when they see evidence of illegal dumping.
“Residents need to take ownership and call the appropriate authorities so that we can take action,” he said.
Zavala said he and Assistant City Manager Dago Chavez — who is now also the interim police chief — had worked late into the night Monday to deal with the storm. They activated the city’s emergency operations center, which is led by fire chief and emergency operations coordinator Tommy Uresti, Zavala said.
As Commissioner Gomez spoke with some residents after the meeting, Commissioner Benavidez stood a few feet away allaying concerns from others. Benavidez said he felt he had a duty as a public servant to address residents’ concerns after seeing so many show up for the mid-afternoon meeting seeking answers.
“Seeing that, I could not just walk away, so I did stay behind and did talk to the public,” Benavidez said. He encouraged residents to sign up to participate in open forum at next Tuesday’s regular city commission meeting.
“Furthermore, I did, in some cases, agree with them that we could have put more on this agenda. So, I was trying to be as understanding as I could,” he said.
For many residents who attended Friday’s meeting, however, there remained a sense of helplessness.
“Pos, we’re back to square one, begging,” de-la-O said.
Dominguez, who works from home and is the primary breadwinner, described the flood as devastating. “What do I do now until I rebuild my home? For me, it’s devastating and it’s really hard to deal with,” she said.