McALLEN, Texas – If the levees in Granjeno, Madero and south Mission and McAllen are not repaired Hidalgo County could suffer another Hurricane Beulah-type flooding catastrophe, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling has warned.
Under the Trump Administration, some of the levees in these areas were leveled to put the foundations in for a border levee-wall. When the Biden Administration took office, work on the border wall was halted. This has left some of the levees “compromised,” according Darling.
“The previous administration used the levees to build their border wall because they did not have to fool around with landowners. IBWC owns the land,” Darling said.
“There is an emergency process for repairing the levees, so they are always repaired in time for hurricane season. If there has been normal construction it has always been like that, with the levees certified by the IBWC. But, this wall is not normal construction.”
IBWC stands for International Boundary and Water Commission, a binational agency comprised of U.S. and Mexico personnel.
Darling has raised his concerns in two recent webinars, one hosted by the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council and one hosted by the McAllen Economic Development Corporation. He has also had a video call with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.
Asked where the levees have been “compromised,” Darling said: “Near Madero, near Granjeno, Mission, south of McAllen on the west side. I have visited one of the levees that needs repair and seen pictures of the others, provided by a contractor.”
Asked how much of the levees has been affected, Darling said: “Quite a bit. They gone in pretty wide, 60 feet. They have excavated the levees to put in the foundations of the wall.”
Hurricane Season starts June 1. Darling is concerned the levees will not be repaired in time.
“Under the emergency process, if there is a hurricane in the Gulf and it is too late to start repairing the levees, they just put dirt down and tarp over it. If you have a 60 foot opening, that is not going to work.”
Darling said he is not giving an opinion on whether Trump was right to build a border wall, or Biden was right to not build a border wall.
“This is not about building the wall or not building the wall. We let Washington figure that out. This is about fixing the levees. We have one million people in this county who could be affected. We are heading into hurricane season. The problem is, they (the Biden Administration) said, just shut the wall down, stop construction, they (the government contractors) were in the middle of it. They did not have a plan to say, okay, restore the levee where you dug it out. “
Darling said another factor is the contractors selected to build the border wall are losing all their workers.
“The contractors have been told to stand down. We think that is not appropriate. If we have a hurricane, it could be serious, we could be flooded. It could be a Beulah situation. My understanding with Beulah is something happened to the levees. And so all that water flowed north.”
Darling pointed out that Hurricane Beulah was 50-plus years ago. “The population is five or ten-fold. And we have a lot more buildings.”
“It is unacceptable for the administration to do this. Somebody should have thought of this before they said, stop construction. And took bids to fix whatever they need to fix.”
Darling said he would “like to know if IBWC has certified” the plans to build the border levee-walls.
“Usually, when a hurricane comes into the Gulf, you are talking about a week, maybe less. It does not need to be a hurricane here. If it happens in Mexico and it fills up the reservoirs and they (Mexico) release the waters, it could be a catastrophe. That is why the levees are there. To protects us from the river. They are not there to protect us from normal rainfall when the hurricane is immediately on us. It is the river flooding because of the rains in Mexico.”
Darling said the Valley’s levee system was tested a few years back.
“In 2010 the levee system was tested severely. In Donna it was within inches of coming over the banks. You know how strong that current can get.”
Asked if the U.S. Corps of Engineers could fix the levees without building the border wall, Darling said: “Yes, sure. It is where the foundations are. They were doing foundation work on the wall.”
Asked if he has heard from IBWC, Darling said: “I have not seen them chime in on this. The original levees were certified by the IBWC. But these border walls are not the same levee they did the plans on.”
The Rio Grande Guardian contacted IBWC for comment. Sally Spener, U.S. Secretary for IBWC’s U.S. Section, said her agency has identified approximately 13.4 miles of compromised levees in the Lower Rio Grande Flood Control Project associated with the suspension of the border wall contracts.
“The U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC) is very concerned about the existing levee gaps in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The USIBWC understands the critical nature of the situation and has reiterated to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Customs and Border Protection the immediate importance of providing flood protection to the local community prior to hurricane season, which begins June 1,” Spener said.
“Pending the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Customs and Border Protection being able to return to work, USIBWC has advised the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S Customs and Border Protection to review and update their emergency flood protection plan in addition to their planning to repair the affected levees.”
Spener added: “As a general practice, the USIBWC requires anyone doing work on USIBWC levees to have a plan in place to ensure levee integrity for any flooding that could occur during the hurricane season.”
Following a video meeting with Valley leaders, Sen. Cornyn sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas urging him to allow the reconstruction of levees along the Rio Grande to protect South Texas from flood damage ahead of hurricane season.
“Leaving these levees in their current state could put more than 200,000 Texans in the path of catastrophic flooding as hurricane season rapidly approaches. It is critical that the Department permit the Army Corps of Engineers and other contractors to continue their work to rebuild and repair these levees,” Cornyn wrote.
“I have heard from dozens of local leaders who are concerned with the threat this unfinished work represents to their communities.”
Remembering Hurricane Beulah
Throughout its path, 59 people were killed by 1967’s Hurricane Beulah. The Category 3 storm made landfall just north of the mouth of the Rio Grande, dumping 30 inches of rain.
Veteran broadcaster Ron Whitlock was the only reporter able to send dispatches throughout Hurricane Beulah. He worked for K-RIO at the time.
Whitlock said many people in McAllen thought they had escaped the worst of the hurricane. He said a meeting with Mac McCreery, owner of McCreery Aviation, and Gamble Palmer, a McAllen city commissioner, dispelled that complacency.
“We flew to Starr County to see the waters flowing down the San Juan River, a tributary to the Rio Grande. The floodwater was spilling over the Mexican Dam of Sugar Lake into the San Juan River, south of Rio Grande City, where it reached Rio Grande River. Mac and Gamble told me, this water will be in McAllen in two days.
“They were right. The levees were breached as Beulah lingered over this binational area, depositing over 30 inches of rain. It had already been saturated by previous rain events. A perfect scenario for the flooding disaster that unfolded.”
Bob McCreery, son of Mac McCreery and owner and president of McCreery Aviation, said planes at McAllen International Airport were driven up to the parking lot of McAllen Country Club because its elevation was 20 feet higher. Hurricane Beulah flooded the airport and there is a plaque on the wall showing how high the floodwater rose to.
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