LA FERIA — Three weeks after one of the hardest-hitting rain storms in memory, many of the thousands of homeowners flooded in Cameron County are continuing clean-ups and beginning repair work to replace dry wall and flooring in their homes.
But here in an area called Tio Cano Lake rural homeowners may be weeks away from reaching that stage. Floodwaters stretching hundreds of yards across this lowland are still blocking people from their homes.
Rene Taguilas has lived his whole life here near the lake, which in drier times is more of a marsh better at growing cat-tails than holding water, and he says he’s never seen anything like it.
“Never in my life has it happened like this, never,” the 62-year-old Taguilas said last week as he looked out over water lapping at the edge of his yard and still a foot high on his outbuildings. “Even with Dolly we didn’t have water up to here. Last year in June we had a pretty good rain, but the water didn’t show up this far.”
In fact, a dozen or so homes here on Tio Cano Road and on nearby FM 506 up to Coco Road have standing water still lapping over front doors.
Many people, he said, are staying elsewhere until they can return and start the laborious process of making their homes livable again.
Taguilas says he is lucky, though. His home is on ground just a foot or so higher than that of his neighbors, many of them relatives, and the ground floors of their homes last week were still under water.
Tio Cano has always been a place of small margins.
Tio Cano Lake’s 450 acres might be more accurately described as a “lake bed” which is usually dry.
At times the geologic feature has been used by farmers as an irrigation water source, as long as the salinity wasn’t too high, but it no longer serves as a reservoir for crops.
Alan Moore is manager of Cameron County Drainage District No. 5. Tio Cano Lake isn’t in his district, but he has a real interest in its geology, nonetheless.
He lives there.
“Tio Cano is a natural depression; it’s a natural lake bed that has no outlet,” Moore said last week. “Any water that runs into it, which historically everything in that region runs into Tio Cano Lake, and the only way out is to be pumped out. That’s just he way the landscape was made.”
Moore and his wife purchased their property on the south side of the lake bed in the early 1990s. Documents provided by the seller from Hurricane Beulah in 1967 showed a debris line on the lake at 46 feet above sea level in elevation. Hurricane Dolly’s rainfall reached the same level.
“I built the floor level of my house to a 50, four feet higher than Beulah, four feet higher than Dolly,” he said. “We’re safe, this is great. There’s nothing over a 50 and I’m on the far south side, nothing over 50 for me until downtown Santa Rosa. It would be continuous water all the way — we’re fine.”
Things were fine this time too, but just barely. Moore said on the night of the storm three weeks ago, he returned home to find his rain gauge brimming at 16 inches and bubbling over the top.
“We had flows coming in from the south that overtopped the road and came through the driveway, across the yard, and split going around the house,” he said. “I only ever considered the rising water from the lake; I hadn’t considered that kind of depth of overland flow. It was about 6 inches away from coming in.”
His wife bought flood insurance the next day.
Viewed from FM 506 from near the Aurora Longoria Colonia, the floodwaters stretch for hundreds of yards on both the east and west side of the road.
Residents lucky enough to be able to reach their homes are parking their cars and trucks along the highway, and at one home, a small herd of cows was clinging forlornly to a small mound of dirt in the yard.
Just down the road, white ducks and geese were splashing in the high water, perhaps the only residents of the colonia pleased with the flooding.
Palm trees, swing sets, abandoned cars and a travel trailer were positioned half-underwater across the landscape, and it probably will be weeks or maybe months before they dry out again.
But if there is any good news to be seen here at Tio Cano Lake, it is this: There is less of it to see every day.
The La Feria Irrigation District quickly jumped in to help residents, and has pumped millions of gallons of rain runoff out of the lake bed and into a canal leading south to the Arroyo Colorado.
Reversing the flow
The irrigation district is responsible for helping bring in and remove water to and from agricultural areas, and has no responsibility to help flood victims, no matter how great their need.
“We are the ones that have always done the pumping out of that for whatever reasons and we’re still ongoing,” Al Martinez, the irrigation district’s general manager, said yesterday.
His district is using its pumps, some from the county and also from the City of La Feria to remove water from Tio Cano and shift it to the arroyo.
The area around Tio Cano Lake in the western part of Cameron County is not part of a county drainage district, which is common in rural areas.
Martinez said the Cameron County Commissioners Court has stepped up and has agreed to pay his fuel costs to operate the pumps and that he is grateful for it.
“We’re reversing water back into the arroyo,” he said. “This is not the natural flow. It’s pretty much going about a foot uphill.”
“There’s still plenty of water,” he added. “As of yesterday (Sunday), we’re starting to gain 3 inches a day. It’s been 2 inches every 24 hours.”
Martinez said the pumping could be ended this week by a decision from the county, or so he has heard, but he doubts enough water will be removed by then. He predicts at least another week or maybe even two of pumping before the flooding recedes to the point people can begin to restore their homes.
His concern, now that Tio Cano floodwaters are receding, is next time.
“It’s never a good thing to see people’s homes damaged, you have to have some empathy,” Martinez said. “But there’s also, ‘Well, how many times are we going to be doing this?’ There has to be a practical response after this.”
“Yes, I understand you’re flooded, but it’s intended to take in all the water from surrounding fields, that’s the purpose of Tio Cano, it’s a natural hole,” he said. “Why you’re there, I don’t know, but we’ll do our best to get it out. But there has to be some kind of plan to keep doing this. Who’s going to keep doing this and for how much longer? It is draining our resources and it won’t be the last storm, obviously. It definitely won’t be the last storm.”