Hurricane Dolly is poised to strike the Gulf Coast near the Texas-Mexico border later today, maybe even escalating to a Category 2 storm. About 1.5 million Texans stand in the storm's projected path, and the governor of Tamaulipas, Mexico is planning to evacuate 23,000 people -- a reminder that nature knows no borders.
The storm is expected to hit 45 minutes east of Brownsville, the biggest city in the Rio Grande Valley. Similar to New Orleans, Brownsville is protected by a system of levees, in this case managed by the International Boundary and Water Commission. They were rebuilt after Hurricane Beulah devastated the area in 1967, killing 58 people and causing $1 billion in damage.
But with up to 15 inches of rain quickly dumped on the area, officials are afraid the levees will be breached, causing flooding damage reminiscent of Katrina:
"We could have a triple-decker problem here," Cavazos told a meeting of more than 100 county and local officials Tuesday. "We believe that those (levees) will be breached if it continues on the same track. So please stay away from those levees."
Also like New Orleans, the people who live on the Gulf's Texas-Mexico border are not economically well-equipped to withstand a storm's devastation. I first ran across Brownsville when covering environmental issues in 1992, when an epidemic of babies born without brains struck neighborhoods on both sides of the border. As Time magazine later reported:
From 1988 to '92, 25 children were born with the spinal-nerve defect called spina bifida; more than 30 others had almost no brain at all--a related and fatal neural defect called anencephaly. "It would look like somebody took a knife and just whacked the top of their head off," said Brownsville physician Manuel Guajardo.
Public health experts blamed the massive pollution coming from U.S.-owned companies in Matamoros, just across the border, where over 100 companies operated in maquiladoras to take advantage of cheap labor and loose environmental laws -- an ominous foreshadowing of NAFTA.
Families of the dead and deformed babies filed a lawsuit that included General Motors among its targets, which was found to be using four times the amount of toxic solvents in its Mexico plant as it did in a comparable plant in Dayton, Ohio. A massive study never conclusively proved the cause of the health tragedy but days before the case was scheduled for trial the companies settled for $17 million.
Outside the cities, most residents are tied to the Rio Grande's agricultural economy. 90% of the population is Latino, largely Mexican-American. A close-knit region with a strong cultural identity (and a rich labor organizing history), most live in the low-lying 2,000 colonias that often lack basic utilities and water, making them uniquely vulnerable to a storm.
As always, whether the storm Hurricane Dolly becomes a "natural disaster" or now will depend on very human -- not "natural" -- factors: the politics and economics of the Rio Grande before the storm hits, and the effectiveness of the government response after it strikes.
IMAGE: Hurricane Dolly, NOAA