Fragility of Valley’s levee system exposed by floods
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.”