EDINBURG, RGV – Hidalgo County could still be classified a flood zone by FEMA and thus households and businesses could be susceptible to huge hikes in their insurance premiums.

This may come as a surprise to residents who thought that a diversion of $60 million of local taxpayer money from county drainage projects to federal levee repairs in 2006 was supposed to fix that. Many levees were repaired with the bond money, in conjunction with DHS’s building of border walls.

However, a levee wall that surrounds the historic Edinburg Pump Station in Peñitas was not fully repaired, leaving Hidalgo County at risk of flooding if flood waters from the Rio Grande breach the wall during a hurricane. This came close to happening in the aftermath of Hurricane Alex in 2010. That July, a temporary levee had to be hastily built to protect the pump station. McAllen Construction did the work in conjunction with the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The pump station was built in 1925.

The historic Edinburg Pump Station in Peñitas is pictured with the temporary levee wall erected in July 2010 following flooding associated with Hurricane Alex.
The historic Edinburg Pump Station in Peñitas is pictured with the temporary levee wall erected in July 2010 following flooding associated with Hurricane Alex.

Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia wants to know why the levee at Peñitas was not repaired with money that was diverted from county drainage projects to the federal levee repair project. He will be asking Hidalgo County Drainage District No.1 manager Godfrey Garza questions at a Drainage District meeting later today.

“Mr. Garza characterized the Peñitas pump station as being a weak link in our drainage system because it still needs work to properly shore it up, to get prepared for a flood. He has told us that the cost of fixing it properly will be $7 million or $8 million. But he has also proposed a temporary fix that would be anywhere from $700,000 to $800,000,” Garcia told the Guardian.

“I visited with Mr. Edward Drusina, the IBWC commissioner, and he has committed to funding it and completing the job at the Peñitas pump station but it will take two years. I do not want the County to run the risk of having a flood, of having a hurricane hit with the county not being fully protected. So, in order to avoid that I believe the commissioners and myself are going to be getting involved in the temporary fix, which means we have to come up $700,000 to $800,000 and enter into a contract with some contractor and start getting the work done so that it will be ready in time for the next hurricane season in July. We are going to be talking about where we are on that front.”

Asked what the situation is like at the Peñitas pump station, Garcia said: “There is a big brick wall that comes up to the western side of the canal that goes into the pump station. That brick wall has to be taken and built across the canal to the other side. It is an expensive deal. Around the north side of the pump station, we need to get some soil, some clay from somewhere, a lot of it, and shore it up. We have to avoid a potential disaster.”

Asked if FEMA could still declare Hidalgo County a flood zone, because the levee in Peñitas is not fixed, Garcia said: “That is the concern that has been expressed to us by different people, including Mr. Garza, that that is a possibility. It would hurt a lot of people economically. We do not have the levees properly shored up and they could fail. It is a real disaster waiting to happen.”

Garcia said Hidalgo County Commissioners Court should have been informed a lot earlier about how bad things are at Peñitas. “We should have been given this information two and a half years ago. Fortunately, nothing happened. No hurricane hit us during that period of time. So, we have time to work on it and we are going to work on it and get it done.”

Asked how he learned about the levee problem at Peñitas, Garcia said: “Mr. Hollis Rutledge was hired by the county, he and his firm, to get the $60 million back that we are supposed to have invested in the levee project; that the government said they would figure out a way to pay back to the county. In the process he became aware of the situation and he made us aware.”

In addition to the Peñitas problem, Garcia also wants to know from Garza where the $100 million in bond money approved by Hidalgo County voters in 2006 was spent.

“The taxpayers of the county entrusted us with $100 million in taxpayer dollars to work on the drainage system. When we were out there in 2006, campaigning, wanting people to vote for the bond issue, we laid out certain specific projects that we would be working on. In 2007, there was a new administration and priorities changed. A new priority was that work needed to be done on the levees because of the FEMA designation of a flood zone that would mean a tremendous increase in insurance rates,” Garcia said.

“It was also susceptible to flooding, if we did not fix the levees. The county got involved in working on the levees, worked out a partnership with the IBWC and there is a question as to how much money we actually spent. I am trying to get an accounting here. Mr. Garza told us it was $60 million. I have been told it is more like $79 million. $19 million is a big difference.”

Garcia went on to say: “It is too late to ask, should we have gotten involved. We got involved. Should we have gotten involved with building the border wall? We did get involved with building the border wall. Those arguments are already over with. Right now we just have to look at what happened and look at basic accounting. Did we spend the money where it should have been spent? Can we account for the $100 million? How was it spent? How much is left over? Can we explain the status of the drainage bond project? I told the taxpayers we were going to be working on this back in 2006. That is one aspect of what we are going to be talking about.”

Garcia added that Hidalgo County is looking for a new manager for its Drainage District. “We are working on identifying the job description. We are going to open it up and see who applies. Mr. Garza’s current contract reads one year. He told us it was a transitional period of up to one year. When the transition is over, that is the end of it. We will get a new manager.”