For the fourth year in a row, heavy summer rains have pummeled the Rio Grande Valley, causing flooding headaches from Starr County to South Padre Island. But in the Mid-Valley — which has borne the brunt of flooding for years — this week’s rainfall offers a look at how well the region’s investment in drainage infrastructure has fared.
This week’s rains have also served to illustrate — in stark contrast — the effects in those areas where such investments have lagged behind.
“We didn’t flood,” said Raul Reyna, whose north Weslaco home in the Las Brisas neighborhood flooded during the Great June Flood of 2018, and in June 2019, as well.
Las Brisas, along with the Chapas subdivision along Mile 9 North Road, saw several feet of water enter homes during those two record-breaking rain events. Reyna, his wife Elma, and their pet dogs were among dozens of residents who were evacuated in a high ground clearance military vehicle.
It then took a week before the Reyna family could return to their two-story home, which had suffered such extreme damage that Raul chose to take early retirement from his job as an auto mechanic in order to rebuild himself.
In a 2019 interview marking the one-year anniversary of the flood, Raul spoke of how the 2018 flood had destroyed the entire first floor, including a set of kitchen cabinets he had constructed as a hobbyist woodworker.
“Me dolió el corazón because I made them myself,” Raul said then of how his heart hurt when he saw the ruined cabinets.
Just days after that interview, his house was again inundated by another 500-year flood.
But on Friday, Raul was ebullient.
According to the National Weather Service in Brownsville, more than 7 inches of rain fell over Weslaco between Tuesday and Wednesday.
Yet Raul Reyna’s house stayed dry.
“They made a retention pond and they’re widening now the drainage ditch on the back of the house. They’re still under the construction. We did get a little water on the street, but not as much like the last time that we had flooded,” Reyna said.
Raul spoke of a 10-acre regional detention facility (RDF) — a manmade retention pond — that is currently under construction as part of a series of drainage infrastructure projects funded via the passage of a $190 million bond election in November 2018.
The project is being undertaken by Hidalgo County Precinct 1 and has been under construction since 2019.
While the project hadn’t gotten far enough along to spare Reyna’s home from flooding again in 2019, this year, it did its job of keeping water out of Las Brisas. However, another neighborhood wasn’t so lucky.
Just down the street, the Chapas neighborhood once again found itself underwater this week.
“The reason it’s affecting Chapas more than Las Brisas is that the transition from the south to the north happens right there and because the water accumulated in that detention facility at such a high rate, it just started to overflow,” said Precinct 1 Hidalgo County Commissioner David Fuentes on Friday.
As the RDF filled faster than it could drain, water began to backflow into the Chapas neighborhood, Fuentes said.
Crews worked to build a barricade to stop the backflow. The precinct also engaged several vacuum trucks to pump water out of Chapas and other neighborhoods, Fuentes said.
Though Las Brisas was saved, Chapas shows there’s still more work to be done. The commissioner said plans are already underway to further alleviate flooding in north Weslaco via the construction of a 20-acre RDF south of the two neighborhoods.
“The 10-acre facility helped tremendously. That 20-acre facility added onto this is gonna really, I think, answer a lot of the final concerns,” Fuentes said.
The bulk of the drainage projects being funded by the 2018 drainage bond are located squarely in Fuentes’ expansive precinct, which runs from Donna east to Mercedes, and north toward the Delta region. And while residents in Weslaco have begun to see improvements in drainage capacity, next door in Mercedes, residents continue to struggle with flooding.
As the Queen City grappled with similar amounts of rainfall as Weslaco this week, one resident took her frustrations to Facebook Live to urge motorists to stop exacerbating the inundation by creating wakes as they drove past.
As they had in 2018, 2019 and after Hurricane Hanna in 2020, many Mercedes neighborhoods saw extensive flooding this week.
While Hidalgo County and cities like Weslaco were quick to pass bond elections after the 2018 flood, Mercedes has struggled to address large scale infrastructure issues and has thus far done little to improve its drainage.
“We saw a lot of communities take bond elections at the same time that the county did — city of Weslaco, city of Edinburg, city of Pharr and city of McAllen,” Fuentes said of the response in the aftermath of the 2018 flood that had been so bad, it earned an official name from the National Weather Service.
But Mercedes officials didn’t try to pass any bonds in 2018. Or after the 2019 flood.
Rather, just four days after the 2019 flood, Mercedes officials called an emergency meeting.
Under the Texas Open Meetings Act, emergency meetings — which could then be convened with as little as three hours’ notice — can only be called in order to respond to an “emergency or urgent public necessity” such as a natural disaster.
With many cities at the time calling emergency meetings in order to declare states of disaster, dozens of Mercedes residents poured into city hall that Friday expecting to hear similar news — city officials declaring a disaster and marshaling resources to pump out standing water or deliver disaster relief supplies.
Instead, the city commission met behind closed doors to discuss a 30-year-old sewer line problem in a neighborhood that hadn’t flooded during the storm — an improvement project that wouldn’t be completed for another year.
But it’s not just a lack of local response that has hindered Mercedes’ ability to address its drainage woes. The city’s proximity to the International Boundary and Water Commission’s floodway also complicates things.
Any development near the manmade sluice, which is made up of flood control levees that cut across the Valley from west to east, needs approval from the IBWC. And as an arm of the federal government, that takes time.
It’s something Fuentes and Raul Sesin, general manager of Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1, have explained to Mercedes city leaders before.
Whereas buying land and right-of-way near the Las Brisas and Chapas neighborhoods in Weslaco was relatively easy, there are more hurdles involved in such efforts around Mercedes.
“In other locations it takes a little more assessment. We don’t have as many assets. We don’t have the capacity to widen ditches as easily where we have right-of-way that already exists,” Fuentes said.
Fuentes assured that there are funds from the 2018 bond which have been earmarked for drainage projects in the Queen City, and that work continues to cross those hurdles.
“We showed them the status of our bond projects and what we’re doing for the city of Mercedes, you know, roughly a $17 million investment in three different projects,” Fuentes said, referring to a presentation he and Sesin delivered to the commission earlier this year.
“So, it’s an important part of the puzzle — $17 million is nothing to just consider as just little pocket change. These are significant investments. And what we’re trying to do is just save lives and property,” he said.
For Raul Reyna, the man whose Las Brisas home didn’t flood this time around, every rainstorm still brings with it a little trepidation.
“Any strong rain that comes, we all worry. I guess it’s in the back of our mind and memory, por que, pos da miedo, verdad?” Reyna said, speaking of the fear the rains instill.
The detention pond near his house brings him some peace of mind now, however.
“We’re relieved on that. Most of the people that live in the neighborhood, they’re against it, but knowing that it’s working for the neighborhood… if it wasn’t for that I guarantee you we would be under water again,” Reyna said.