Federal judge, Hidalgo County officials still seeking answers on levee repairs

A US Border patrol agent drives past levee construction at Chimney Park on Monday, May 3, 2021, in Mission. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

BY VALERIE GONZALEZ & NAXIELY LOPEZ

Construction crews have yet to begin repairing the levees federal contractors damaged in pursuit of border wall construction under the Trump Administration. Meanwhile, Hidalgo County officials scrambled to get details about the project and looked for ways to continue adding pressure to get the levees fixed before the start of hurricane season.

A US Border Patrol agent is parked next to a gap in the levee on Monday, May 3, 2021, in Abram. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

“We must address this matter now,” Hidalgo County Precinct 3 Commissioner Everardo “Ever” Villarreal said Monday. Villarreal held a press conference in mid April to voice his concerns and has continued to be vocal about the issue that directly impacts his precinct. He is scheduled to tour the damage via helicopter Tuesday and hold another news conference with other dignitaries, including U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar and Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez.

On Monday, a federal judge also considered adding pressure by possibly issuing a court order to prompt a start date, the Progress Times reported.

U.S. District Judge Randy Crane said he would consider the matter after hearing safety concerns caused by the unfinished border wall during a federal court hearing Monday.

“All parties agreed levee remediation is necessary and a priority, but construction timeline and method are currently unclear,” a note on Monday’s docket entry read.

Villarreal was cautiously optimistic, at best.

“I am grateful for the urgency U.S. District Judge Randy Crane is giving this matter,” Villarreal said. “This is a step in the right direction; however, the federal government is already late in repairing our levee.”

On Friday, the Department of Homeland Security announced their intention to fix the levees.

“Construction under the prior administration blew large holes into the Rio Grande Valley’s flood barrier system to make way for a border wall,” the statement read. “The flood barrier system had long provided low-lying regions of Hidalgo County, Texas, protection from catastrophic flooding, and these breaches have threatened local communities. DHS will start work to quickly repair the flood barrier system to protect border communities. This work will not involve expanding the border barrier.”

The news release was devoid of a start and completion date.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said the county still knows little about the timeline.

“They’ve been very secretive,” Cortez said, referring to the federal government.

The judge said someone was closely monitoring the situation unfolding in Washington, D.C.

“I don’t think anybody knows,” he said of the start date.

Five sites along the International Boundary and Water Commission were identified as places needing repair.

Villarreal is concerned the delay in construction could spell disaster for the community he represents.

“First, their lives. They are at risk,” the commissioner said. “And, number two, their properties. They would suffer irreparable damage because a lot of our citizens do not have insurance.”

Crane requested defendants draft a proposed order or motion for injunctive relief by Tuesday “describing the Court’s authority to require levee remediation within a specific time period,” according to the notes on Monday’s docket.

A follow up status conference hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

Unfinished wall construction is shown at Chimney Park on Monday, May 3, 2021, in Mission. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Villarreal hopes the order is enough to begin construction soon, but doesn’t know if the response will be fast enough to have repairs completed by June 1, the start of the hurricane season.

“It all depends on how many employees they’re going to send, and what type and quantity of heavy equipment to be able to move the dirt around and be able to compact it. And (we have to) get our engineers working so they can inspect the repairs of the levees so they can be done in a responsible manner,” Villarreal said.