MONTE ALTO — On a recent sweltering summer day, Angelica Sanchez Millan walked down the aisles of a local Walmart with her two nephews, aged 10 and a year-and-a-half, in tow. However, the trio weren’t on a shopping trip.
Weeks after a June storm dropped torrential rains and brought with it gale force winds that sheared across the Delta communities, Millan and her nephews were, in reality, taking refuge from the heat of the day inside the air conditioned expanse of the 24-hour retail store after the storm had left them homeless.
Out of help and out of resources, the trio had been spending their days in the store and muggy summer nights sleeping in the parking lot in a borrowed vehicle, Millan’s own lost to the storm.
As if things couldn’t get worse, Millan received a traffic citation while traveling to the Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster recovery center in La Villa. She didn’t know it then, but that citation would begin putting her on the path to getting help.
After laboring for years in the agricultural field, Millan had finally begun to establish a home of her own in rural Monte Alto. Hers was the second to last trailer home located on the east side of the quiet Cielo Lane cul-de-sac.
The neighborhood is quiet, surrounded by acres of cotton still verdant before the harvest. But, everything changed the night of June 24, when a squall bloomed shortly after sunset and quickly mushroomed into a force of destruction.
A 500-year storm. The second in just over a year.
If the storm had a bullseye, Monte Alto — and Cielo Lane in particular — was it. Residents hunkered down as winds in excess of 55 mph tore roofs from their homes and ripped branches off trees. Fat raindrops pelted the neighborhood, ultimately inundating the neighborhood in waist-deep floodwaters.
Millan’s neighbors saw her trailer home lifted from its moorings by the winds before it smashed into the neighboring lots. Millan, her two sons, aged 16 and 20, and her nephews — whom she also considers her children — were not home.
Instead, Millan and the two youngest children were miles away at a hospital, sitting vigil while her eldest son underwent surgery.
The following day, she arrived home to find her entire neighborhood submerged in water. And on her lot at the end of the lane, nothing remained, save her flooded van, the concrete steps that once led to her front door and the trailer’s central air conditioning unit.
The trailer home to the left of hers listed dangerously north-to-south — the direction the wind had come from. The two homes to her right bore damage, as well, but remained standing.
However, her trailer was in pieces. The top half of it lay in tatters in her next door neighbor’s yard. The bottom half of the trailer — the heavy metal base — had flown two houses down, striking a yellow wood frame house with such force, the house was displaced four feet.
“Hubo testigos que miraban, qué miraban qué voló la casa. Literalmente voló,” Millan said. “Eyewitnesses saw, they saw the house fly. It literally flew.”
The stove landed on a neighbor’s roof.
Metal straps which had secured the trailer to concrete anchors on the ground lay mangled and twisted amongst the rubble.
Millan is convinced that the pinpoint destruction which so utterly demolished her home came from a tornado.
“I spent 10 years working to buy that house — in the fields, in a cattle ranch — and that’s what I found, the steps at the entrance to the house,” she said in Spanish. “My kids’ clothes.”
That night, unaware that Monte Alto had established an emergency shelter at an elementary school, Millan and her nephews spent the night beneath a tree. Neighbors brought her food, she said.
FROM A MOTEL TO A MART
In the days that followed, Millan met a disaster relief worker who was able to provide her with gift cards to purchase immediate necessities — food, diapers for the infant — as well as enough funds to spend a week at an Edinburg Motel 6.
Millan began the arduous process of trying to recover, first contacting FEMA, then trying to gather the documents necessary to support her disaster claim. Then, her week’s stay at the hotel ended and she found herself on the street again.
“At the end of the week, I had to leave the hotel, and literally, again, I had to stay on the street,” she said.
Millan was told her case had been closed and she wouldn’t be getting anymore help from local agencies. Another man gave her a business card with contact information for the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities and the local food bank.
The Salvation Army told her they couldn’t take her in because she doesn’t have papers proving she has custody of her two nephews, whom she has been raising since their mother was deported. Millan is in the country legally, she said.
Catholic Charities told her they wouldn’t have the funds to help until after Aug. 4. FEMA told her they would mail her a $1,000 check to help with living expenses, but it would take two weeks.
Meanwhile, a FEMA inspector visited her home, made a preliminary inspection and began requesting additional documentation for her case.
While things remained in limbo, Millan and her two nephews spent their days at Walmart. Her sons took refuge in the homes of friends.
“Just like any other customer: I’d go in, turn the corner, walk … wash my face,” Millan said of her days inside the Elsa Walmart.
She rationed the gift cards she’d been given, using them to buy food for the children, and got diapers from a local disaster relief effort, she said.
Ultimately, Millan met Monte Alto school board president Connie Villanueva, who told her about FEMA’s disaster recovery center in nearby La Villa. Millan figured meeting with FEMA in person might yield better results with her disaster claim, so she drove there in her borrowed vehicle.
Unfamiliar with the town and its speed limits, she was pulled over for speeding on her way back by an Edcouch police officer. The needle on the car’s gas tank was approaching empty, and she was out of money.
As the officer approached the vehicle, Millan began to cry from frustration and a sense of hopelessness. The officer asked if she was OK.
“Ya no se que mas me va a pasar,” she told him. “I don’t know what else is going to happen to me.
“There aren’t any solutions. And now I’m stopped by the police.”
Afterward, Villanueva urged Millan to meet with Edcouch City Manager Victor Hugo de la Cruz to see if a payment plan could be arranged to pay the citation.
Millan told de la Cruz about living in the Walmart parking lot in the weeks after the storm. Moved by her story, he became determined to help.
The city keeps a small house across the street from city hall. Currently, it uses the building for the city council’s executive sessions. A large conference table fills the small living room.
“We have this little house here, just go ahead and stay there while you get all this in order,” de la Cruz told Millan.
City employees have also taken Millan and her family under their wings. Over the last few days, various people have brought them food, checked up on them, tried to make them comfortable, Millan said.
Now de la Cruz is asking for the public’s help. Maybe someone in the community can lend her an RV, he said, or provide other help. He urges the public to call city hall at (956) 262-2140.
When that Edcouch police officer pulled her over, Millan had begun to lose hope. What more could go wrong? Hadn’t she lost enough? But, the incident ultimately served as a reminder of God’s goodness, she said.
It was God who placed Connie Villanueva in her path and the police officer who pulled her over, which led to her meeting Victor Hugo de la Cruz.
It was God who ensured she wasn’t home the night of the storm.
“For some reason, I wasn’t in that trailer at that moment. For some reason, God took that trailer from me at that moment. Why? Because, maybe God wants me somewhere else so that I can keep speaking and sharing my testimony of Him,” she said.
If Job could endure all he went through, Millan said, then she can, too. It just takes faith.