It appears that the Lower Rio Grande Valley dodged a bullet yesterday, the earthen levees along the river reportedly holding up to Hurricane Dolly's rains. Before the storm made landfall, residents had been warned to seek shelter because officials feared the deteriorated levees might fail. Worries still linger, though, as Dolly -- now downgraded to a tropical storm -- moves inland.
With valley residents already living in fear of floods during what's expected to be an unusually active hurricane season, you might expect the federal government would be doing all it can to make people safer. But instead, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is undertaking a massive construction project that not only makes levee failures more likely in the short term but could also worsen future flooding in the region.
We're talking, of course, about the border wall.
Construction of on the controversial barrier between the U.S. and Mexico was set to begin in parts of the valley this week and finish by year's end. DHS plans to incorporate 18-foot concrete walls into the levees along the river's edge in coastal Cameron and Hidalgo counties in order to hold back both immigrants and floodwaters. In Hidalgo County alone, the structure is expected to cost $113.9 million. On Monday, cranes unloaded steel beams and other supplies at a staging site while project supervisors met with emergency officials to discuss Dolly's approach.
Chad Foster is the mayor of Eagle Pass, Tx. and chair of the anti-fence Texas Border Coalition, which is made up of cities, counties, chambers of commerce, and economic development corporations representing some 2 million border residents. In May, TBC announced that it would bring a class-action lawsuit against DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and Robert Janson of U.S. Customs and Border Protection alleging abuses in the wall's construction. DHS waived environmental laws in order to allow the project to proceed without delay.
Foster seized the moment of Dolly's approach to release a statement calling it "unbelievably foolish" for DHS to move ahead with plans to rebuild the Rio Grande levees during hurricane season:
"The footings of the levees are being destroyed in the construction process so that the Department of Homeland Security can erect 18-foot concrete walls in their place. It is incredibly short-sighted that the government would open the levees at the same time that the danger is highest for devastating floods in the middle of hurricane season.
After the Federal Emergency Management Agency determined the 40-year-old levees along the Rio Grande were inadequate to handle potential floods, DHS -- FEMA's parent agency -- saw the need for repairs as a way to advance their goal of a border wall. The wall's opponents note that the only places where DHS is paying to rebuild the levees are in areas where the U.S. Border Patrol wants a barrier. Ironically, one major reason the levees are in such poor condition is because Border Patrol agents drive along the levees' tops, often dragging tires to erase immigrants' footprints so fresh ones will stand out.
Foster criticizes this piecemeal approach to levee repair, arguing that the valley needs a comprehensive flood control solution. And he's not the only one raising concerns about the impact the border wall will have on flooding in the region. K. Rod Summy, an entomology professor who lives in Hidalgo County's Weslaco and writes about the wall at notexasborderwall.blogspot.com, has been reporting on the structure's potential to worsen flooding for some time now.
Noting that there have been no studies to date examining the impact the proposed wall would have on flooding or the levee system's integrity, he blasts U.S. officials for failing to carefully consider the project's potential threats to area residents, writing last December:
Two years ago, this country lost a major city -- New Orleans -- because of a defective levee system. Last month, the failure of a levee system following torrential rains in Tabasco, Mexico resulted in a substantial loss of human life (nearly 300 people missing or dead) and approximately two million homes were severely damaged or destroyed by floodwaters. It is not very comforting to realize that the words "hurricane" and "tropical storm" and "torrential rains' do not appear on even one occasion in the 538-page Draft [Environmental Impact Statement] document for the Border Wall.
Just how devastating could a hit from a major hurricane be to communities in the Lower Rio Grande Valley? In 2005, the University of Texas prepared a computer simulation of a Katrina-like hurricane's effect on the valley's coastal area including Brownsville, the region's largest city with more than 170,000 residents and one that like New Orleans sits on a delta. Modeled after 1961's Category 4 Carla, the "Hurricane Carly" simulation predicted a 17.3-foot storm surge for the Brownsville area -- an estimate the researchers called conservative.
Given the potential threat, does it really make sense to mess with Texas levees now?
(Drawing of border wall levee from notexasborderwall.blogspot.com; click on image for larger version)