SAN BENITO, RGV – There is a reason San Benito received more disaster recovery housing assistance than any other Rio Grande Valley community in the aftermath of Hurricane Dolly, and it is not just because the city was hit hard by the storm.

The staff at South Texas Adult Resource and Training Center, a San Benito-based non-profit community group otherwise known as the START Center, worked tirelessly to sign up applicants for assistance.

Ron Rogers
Ron Rogers

The group’s workers went door to door to learn which families had suffered damage to their homes. Those workers then helped many of the families by driving them to the Hurricane Dolly Assistance Center in Weslaco to complete their application forms. And they did all of this on a volunteer basis, receiving none of the millions of dollars issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs for Hurricane Dolly relief.

Other communities suffered damage from Dolly but, thanks to the START Center, San Benito got the most assistance. Of the 641 applicants who were awarded assistance in the Single Family Homeowner Assistance Program under Round 2.2 of the Texas Disaster Recovery Action Plan, 301 lived in Cameron County, 213 in Hidalgo County and 127 lived in Willacy County.

Of the 301 families in Cameron County that received disaster recovery housing assistance, 194 lived in San Benito, 48 in Brownsville, 36 in Harlingen, 19 in La Feria and one in Laguna Heights. Of the 213 families in Hidalgo County that received disaster recovery housing assistance, the biggest community to receive help was Pharr/Las Milpas, with 127 families assisted. Of the 127 families in Willacy County that received disaster recovery housing assistance, the biggest community to receive help was Raymondville, with 90 families assisted.

Help for rural and urban homeowners

Ron Rogers, executive director of the START Center, gave a shout-out to current and former staff members for the outreach work they did in the aftermath of Hurricane Dolly.

“All the staff worked tirelessly as we assisted over 250 families in Cameron County that were hit hard by Hurricane Dolly. In fact, the START Center was the only non-profit in Cameron County with full-time staff dedicated to assist Hurricane Dolly-affected families,” Rogers told the Rio Grande Guardian.

160326-start_center_2“And, we did not just work inside the San Benito city limits. Our outreach effort was as much rural as it was urban. We went to the small communities along the Rio Grande, Bent Tree, El Ranchito, and La Paloma, places few others would have ever found. Much of the damage was in the colonias but our focus was on anyone who walked through the door.”

Rogers gave a special shout-out to two former workers, Joe Medrano and Julio Santana.

“Joe Medrano and Julio Santana deserve special praise. They worked until eight and nine o’clock at night, six days a week, traipsing through muddy colonias, knocking on doors. They took the applicants to the Hurricane Dolly Assistance Center in Weslaco to get their application forms filled out. Remember, many residents had no transportation. Many were limited English. They had no idea they could get help. Many were afraid to come forward,” Rogers said.

In one of the public hearings about the disaster recovery housing assistance program, hosted by private contractors URS, Medrano thanked the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council. LRGVDC, which is the official council of government for Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties, administered the federal disaster recovery grants. Medrano thanked LRGVDC for including the Green Valley Farms and La Paloma colonias in the outreach efforts.

Last Wednesday, officials with the Texas General Land Office visited Weslaco to present a certificate to LRGVDC for being the first council of government in Texas to complete disaster recovery work associated with hurricanes Ike and Dolly.

“While it is well deserved that the Texas GLO is recognizing the LRGVDC for its work on Hurricane Dolly, there should be high praise as well for the local nonprofits such as the START Center that worked with the hurricane victims,” Rogers said.

“Community groups from throughout the Valley came together – without any funding from the government agencies – to hold the various players such as the GLO, LRGVDC and URS accountable, to ensure fair and equitable treatment for the victims of Hurricane Dolly, homeowners, local workers, and small businesses in the area. Clearly, countless Valley residents would not have been properly accommodated without the tireless efforts of the community-based organizations involved in the Dolly recovery efforts.”

In an op-ed about the disaster recovery housing assistance effort, Rogers recalled how devastating Hurricane Dolly was to those living in low-lying areas.

“Thousands of homes in our colonias were damaged due to Hurricane Dolly, hundreds of them beyond repair,” Rogers wrote. “Hurricane Dolly dumped several feet of water in Valley colonias, and in most cases the water had no place to go. Hundreds of the most vulnerable area residents waded through waist-deep brown water with a few belongings wrapped in plastic bags held high in a sad caravan of Dolly’s displaced. For thousands of colonia residents the struggle to put their lives back together lasted for months and years – just to secure safe, permanent housing for their families.”

Positive Development

Rogers said some positive things came out of the tragedy.

“Hurricane Dolly caused over a billion dollars’ worth of damage in the Rio Grande Valley. But the tragedy rallied several local community groups to put area political leaders on the spot. They brought attention to the deplorable conditions that have long-plagued the Valley. Substandard housing, drainage, inadequate roads, healthcare, and all manner of infrastructure problems in area colonias was now at the forefront, in the aftermath of Dolly,” Rogers wrote.

“For more a generation, local and state leaders have been well aware of the proliferation of colonias in the Valley and South Texas. This unregulated development of unincorporated shantytowns that began in the 1970s and 1980s has emerged as a stain on Texas. It has meant Texas has ‘America’s Third World’ in its midst.”

Rogers said that while state Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr., has tried hard to pass legislation to stop the proliferation of colonias, much of the Texas leadership around the State has not been proactive.

“Too many of our state leaders have been silent. In July 2012, area nonprofits and community groups came together at TSTC in Harlingen for a Valley Colonia Summit, hosted by Senator Lucio, to discuss with federal, state and local leaders the plight of colonia residents. While the State Legislature has passed some laws to improve conditions in existing colonias and make it illegal for developers to create new ones – thanks to Senator Lucio’s hard work – any lasting improvements have been long-coming and hard-fought. The American Dream? For many poor people the dream of owning their own home has become The American Nightmare.”

Rogers concluded his op-ed by saying: “The time has come for every county in the State of Texas to be pro-active, not just those in the Valley. The real solution is for the State Legislature to pass meaningful laws which will put an end to substandard developments in rural flood plains. Texas county governments should be allowed to take control of the land within their area and take action to stop development that does not have proper infrastructure, roads, drainage, and water. The future of poor people in South Texas is at stake.”