Commissioner, collaboration credited for disaster aid award

Congressman Vicente Gonzalez, center, congratulates local officials on the success of their collaborative efforts to secure disaster relief funding for the Rio Grande Valley, including $193 million in aid approved by Congress in response to the June 2018 and 2019 floods. (Dina Arévalo | darevalo@mvtcnews.com)

WESLACO — A local congressman is crediting one Hidalgo County commissioner’s efforts to bring together local, state and federal officials for the success of a nine-figure federal disaster relief funding award announcement.

“He put everybody together. He had Democrats and Republicans and senators and members of Congress and people at HUD and people in FEMA all in one room pushing for South Texas, and pushing for this region,” U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, said during a news conference in Weslaco on Thursday.

Gonzalez was describing Precinct 1 Hidalgo County Commissioner David Fuentes’ years-long efforts to secure disaster relief funding in the wake of powerful storms that devastated the region in 2015, 2018 and 2019 — as well as the recent announcement by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to allocate a total of $193 million in aid for the Rio Grande Valley as part of a $3.8 billion national disaster aid package approved by Congress.

The Texas General Land Office will be in charge of administering the funds, which are earmarked for housing recovery efforts and disaster mitigation projects, according to a statement the GLO issued last month. With more than $58.3 million of a total $72.9 million appropriation allocated in response to The Great June Flood of 2018, Hidalgo County stands to receive one of the largest slices of the disaster aid pie.

Such a large award wouldn’t have been possible, Gonzalez said, had it not been for Fuentes’ tireless efforts.

“No one stepped up to the plate harder, stomped the concrete here locally, and in Austin and in Washington, D.C.,” Gonzalez said of Fuentes.

Fuentes said he was humbled by the congressman’s recognition, adding that he couldn’t take sole credit.

“There was a team of people that helped with this whole project and push,” Fuentes said. “It was not just me. I would never take full credit for this, but I will say that it was very important for our area and we felt that it was important to be at the forefront of this push.”

The commissioner also thanked other Valley officials for their efforts to advocate for the region with a unified voice in conversations with state and federal lawmakers — highlighting, in particular, Cameron County Commissioner David Garza, Willacy County Commissioner Eddy Gonzales, and Precinct 4 Hidalgo County Commissioner Ellie Torres.

“It’s just a team effort. And what we’ve been trying to do locally is collaborate with our partners,” Fuentes said.

Speaking after the news conference, Fuentes elaborated, saying the Valley’s efforts to secure funding for drainage and other critical infrastructure projects began after the 2015 flood, and especially after local officials saw how Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc just a few hundred miles up the Texas coastline. The slow-moving Category 4 hurricane, which made landfall in Texas twice in late-August 2017 and dumped more than 50 inches of rain over Houston, became the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

“We took it to heart. We really gotta go out there and advocate,” Fuentes said, describing his reaction to seeing the damage Harvey caused. Two years later, the Valley was hit with its own unprecedented disaster, when the June 2018 flood dumped more than a dozen inches of rain across the region — including approximately 18 inches of rainfall in Fuentes’ Precinct 1 cities of Weslaco and Mercedes.

The commissioner redoubled his efforts after the storm.

“It caused alarm for all of us to see the inadequacy of what our drainage system is — was — and what our tremendous amount of need is for this area,” he said.

It’ll take some time, however, for the money to be put into action. Fuentes said he hopes the county will begin seeing the funds by 2021, adding that officials are not waiting until then to put together their to-do list.

“Our projects are lined up and ready to go,” he said. “We’ve already identified many, many other projects that are needed in our area.”