Fragility of Val­ley’s levee sys­tem ex­posed by floods

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO & STATE - By Jazmine Ul­loa

BROWNSVILLE — Chickie Sa­mano does not re­mem­ber the storms that swept through Brownsville in 1942 and, as peo­ple al­ways told her, “made the sky look like night for at least four days.” She does re­mem­ber what fol­lowed.

The wa­ter trans­formed the city’s down­town streets into rivers, in­un­dat­ing the bot­tom floor of the apart­ment com­plex on East Madi­son Street where her fam­ily lived and sub­merg­ing all the ve­hi­cles parked around the area. Fruit from an open-air mar­ket nearby floated ev­ery­where.

She was 4 years old then, and af­ter three days of wait­ing in­side for the flood­ing to sub­side, she was fi­nally al­lowed out to play. Black-and-white pho­to­graphs show a pe­tite Sa­mano wad­ing through Washington Park with friends, the wa­ter near their waists.

“We were thrilled to death,” she re­calls.

Most Brownsville res­i­dents have never seen that kind of flood­ing. Sa­mano, now 72, says she has never seen it again.

Floods swept through the western parts of the Rio Grande Val­ley af­ter Hur­ri­cane Alex made land­fall last month, fol­lowed by an­other trop­i­cal de­pres­sion. The storms quickly filled reser­voirs on both sides of the border. At Fal­con Lake up­stream, of­fi­cials dou­bled the nor­mal re­leases on July 8, the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice said, and within days small com­mu­ni­ties along the river were evac­u­ated as the river rose above flood stage.

Fal­con Lake reached a new record level of 308.3 feet, about 7 feet above nor­mal.

Brownsville lev­ees meet fed­eral stan­dards, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Bound­ary and Wa­ter Com­mis­sion. But though the city’s river lev­els re­main steady, the flood­wa­ter has re­vealed the fragility of the levee sys­tem in the Val­ley, some lo­cal of­fi­cials said.

God­frey Garza, Hi­dalgo County drainage district man­ager, said the lev­ees in his county were hold­ing up but that some are too old. “Some … need to be re­worked and not just el­e­vated — they need to be taken out and re­built,” he said.

Cameron County Judge Car­los Cas­cos agreed. “I think some of these is­sues with the fragility of the levee sys­tem are sur­fac­ing,” he said. “I am talk­ing about the levee sys­tem as a whole, from here to Starr County.”

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