MCALLEN, RGV – Keith Patridge, president and CEO of McAllen Economic Development Corporation, has explained the background to the decision by Hidalgo County Commissioners Court to use local monies to fix federal levees.

The levees were repaired almost ten years ago but the subject has been resurrected by Weslaco Mayor David Suarez and Weslaco City Manager Mike Perez in the light of the recent devastating flooding in their city. 

Suarez and Perez point out that funds obtained through a bond issue approved by Hidalgo County voters that were supposed to be spent repairing drainage systems around the county was instead spent on levee repair. 

Hidalgo County Commissioners Court, led by then-County Judge J.D. Salinas, spent almost $80 million on fixing levees in the county as part of a levee-wall combo project. Suarez and Perez told the Rio Grande Guardian that $4.9 million of this was supposed to go to Weslaco. 

In a video interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, MEDC’s Patridge explained why the levees were fixed during the 2008-2010 period, acknowledging that McAllen Foreign Trade Zone was a beneficiary. 

“It was a very difficult time. This was immediately after the impact of Hurricane Katrina, in New Orleans, where we saw the levee fail and it flooded a major portion of New Orleans,” Patridge recalled.

“At that point there was a clamor, ‘well we have to check all of our levees.’ The levees along the floodway had not been certified. If the levee was certified, the businesses and the residents that are on the safe side of the levee would not have to buy flood insurance.”

Certifying the levees was and is the responsibility of the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC). 

“They (IBWC) told us they did not have the money to certify them, or to bring them up to certification. We had one federal agency, IBWC, saying we do not have the money to bring the levee up to specification, and another federal agency, in the form of FEMA, saying well, we are going to have to classify you as a flood area, Rio Grande Valley, which means, basically, that everyone here for the most part, would have to buy flood insurance on their property.”

That was the dilemma County Judge Salinas faced, Patridge explained.

At the time all this was happening, then-President Bush was looking to build a border wall, Patridge recalled.

“President Bush got approval to build the first segments of a border wall. When he did that, he was looking for places along the U.S.-Mexico to build a wall. Most places said, we don’t want a wall. We (McAllen EDC) did not want a wall either. Let’s be very clear, we did not want a wall. We did not think it was necessary. What we did want was a flood control project.”

So, County Judge Salinas took bold and decisive action, Partridge explained.

“J.D., as county judge, saw that CBP (Customs & Border Protection) had a lot of money appropriated to build a wall. We needed protection on our levee to protect the citizens of Hidalgo County and Cameron County from the potential of flooding, and so (the decision was made), let’s approach them about building the wall on the inside of the north levee of the IBWC floodway,” Patridge recalled.

“So, working with our Texas legislative delegation, he (Salinas) approached the federal government with the offer to build the wall on the inside of the floodway levee here. The federal government said yes, CBP, and they put a lot of the money in there. We had to put in a match. They (Hidalgo County Commissioners Court) took some of the money from the drainage bond issue, combined it with the CBP money for the wall and they built what they considered a wall on the inside of the floodway, and what we considered a flood-control project.”

Patridge said there was nothing sinister or underhand in repairing levees around the McAllen Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ) first. He pointed out that the FTZ covers almost 800 acres, has billions of dollars of assets sitting on the ground and has about 4,000 to 5,000 workers.

“The reason they started (fixing the levees) here is not because of the Foreign Trade Zone, not because of the Hunt property, is because water runs downhill. The county said, we have got to start at the beginning. If we do not start at the beginning and we build it somewhere else, if we have a flood it will begin here and flood everything else. We have got to stop it at its source and work our way down,” Patridge explained.

“That is the reason for it. I will defend the decision because otherwise we would be in terrible economic conditions. Everyone, most likely, would have had to start buying flood insurance, which would have impacted our home values and our ability to own homes.”

Patridge pointed out that McAllen Foreign Trade Zone “had nothing to do with the decision” to fix the levees. “We just happened to have benefited from it, along with all of the residents and all of the businesses everywhere in Hidalgo County.”

Without the levees being fixed, Patridge said, “we would have had a much worse flood when we had the hurricane that filled the floodway.”

Patridge reiterated his main point.

“At that time, FEMA was re-doing their flood zone maps and J.D. was being told by FEMA, hey, look, if you cannot show us certification on those IBWC levees, we are going to have to classify you as a flood zone. And then, when you went to a bank or a mortgage company, there is no choice, you would have to buy flood insurance. That would have decimated the economy at the time. It would have stopped a lot of people from being able to buy a home.”

Editor’s Note: Click on the links below to read Rio Grande Guardian coverage of the Border Wall-Levee Combo project from 2008 and 2009:

Lively exchanges over border wall, Dannenbaum, at Citizen’s Forum

Fish and Wildlife says levee-wall plan is incompatible with LRGNWR

Salinas: We will defer to IBWC over height of concrete levee walls

Hidalgo County Judge welcomes Chertoff’s waiver

Marin: 18 feet concrete levee wall would violate treaty with Mexico

Environmentalists call on Hidalgo County leaders to scrap levee-wall combo plan

Salinas asks TBC to help get reimbursement for county monies spent on levees